How the 1st Germanica Legion made its name
As the summer of AD 15 ebbed away, Germanicus Caesar was withdrawing his Roman army from Germany after a successful campaign. While Germanicus’ division was returning to Holland by sea, and Albinovanus Pedo was leading the cavalry back via Frisia, Aulus Caecina, commanding general of the Army of the Upper Rhine, was leading the 1st, 5th Alaudae, 20th and 21st Rapax legions along the route called Pontem Longus, or Long Bridges.
This causeway had been built through a marshy valley by Lucius Domitius during his campaigns in Germany between 7 BC and AD 1. Long Bridges provided the shortest route to the Rhine, but Germanicus knew this road was narrow and frequently flanked by muddy quagmires, making it an ideal place for an ambush, so in sending Caecina this way he had urged his deputy to make all speed through the region.
Arminius, the long-haired, 33-year-old German leader, also knew all about Long Bridges. When he saw the route that Caecina’s four legions were taking, he hurried his Cherusci warriors around the Romans, whose progress was limited to the speed of their baggage train, and occupied the wooded hills around Long Bridges. Caecina reached the valley, and saw the raised roadway stretching toward the west, but on close inspection he found that many of the bridges built by Domitius so many years before had been washed away or were in such bad repair that it would be impossible to send the pack animals or baggage vehicles across them.
It was too late to turn back. Caecina was a general with four decades of military experience. He knew that behind him lay all the massing tribes of Germany, and ahead, the Rhine and safety. Described as “perfectly fearless” by Tacitus, Caecina divided his force into two groups, one to carry out road and bridgeworks, the other to defend the workers. He built a camp on the road, set up outposts and sent his work parties ahead. [Tac., A, I, 64]
Now Arminius struck. Germans swooped down from the trees in their thousands. This was their home territory; and they negotiated the swampland with ease. They harried the work parties with their massive spears, they attacked the outposts with showers of javelins. The legionaries fought them off all day, slipping in the mud and splashing into the water, struggling under the weight of their armored mail, cursing, calling for help from comrades when sucking mud or Germans threatened to end their days. Respite finally came when darkness fell and the Germans withdrew to the hills.
But Arminius and his Cheruscans did not waste this time. Through the night they worked, digging in the hills to divert the course of streams so that torrents of water swept down into the valley and washed away the bridgeworks the Romans had labored to build that day. Next morning, the legionaries had to start from scratch. Under attack again, they rebuilt all day, until Caecina felt he could reach a distant plain between the marsh and the hills. At the end of the day, he gave the order to break camp at dawn and resume the march.
Through the night, the Germans all around them sang guttural songs or let out terrifying shouts to intimidate the Romans. The unsettled legionaries slept fitfully, many rising up and wandering from campfire to campfire to talk with comrades into the early morning hours. Even their general’s sleep was troubled; Tacitus says Caecina awoke in a cold sweat after a nightmare in which he’d seen General Varus rising out of the swamps, covered in blood, extending his hand and beckoning to him. [Ibid., 65]
At daybreak, with the army’s baggage train in the middle, the 1st Legion took the lead, the 5th Alaudae the right wing, the 21st Rapax the left, and the 20th brought up the rear. For a time, the advance went according to plan. But eventually the legions on the wings tired of floundering through mud and water. Flouting Caecina’s orders, the 5th and 21st pressed on ahead to dry land, leaving the column struggling along the road loaded down with wounded, and exposed on the flanks.
Worse still, the hastily improvised bridgeworks proved inadequate. Carts slipped from the road and became trapped in the bog, blocking the way. Legionaries from the 20th in the rear of the column broke ranks and hurried up to try to help heave the carts free, anxious that they were going to be cut off there on the causeway. Centurions in the ranks who had survived the Teutoburg debacle saw that history could well repeat itself, as chaos loomed and invited disaster.
Arminius was watching from the hills. “Behold, a Varus!” he said to his men, “and legions entangled in Varus’ fate!” [Ibid.]
With a roar, the Germans charged from the tree line. Arminius struck at the middle of the column, where the baggage carts were struggling, knowing that thoughts of plunder would drive his tribesmen on. It would also serve the tactical purposes of the Roman-trained German commander to cut the column at its center. Roman cavalry attempted to intercept the Germans before they reached the baggage, but, using their long spears, the tribesmen pierced the undersides of the horses. Panicking steeds threw their riders then galloped through the legionary ranks, adding to the confusion.
As Arminius succeeded in splitting the column in two, Gaius Caetronius, legate of the 1st Legion, turned from where he had been leading the column along the causeway, and brought several cohorts of the 1st to the defense of the baggage train. From the other direction, men of the 20th pressed forward from the rear to do the same. The battle raged, on the raised roadway and in the mud and water all around it, with fierce yells, screams of pain, the neighing of horses and the bellowed commands of centurions trying to keep their units intact. The fighting around the golden birds of the 1st and 20th proved the most violent of all, with the eagle-bearers unable to either speed their standards away from danger or plant them in the soggy ground and use their freed hands to defend their eagles.
General Caecina, in the thick of it all, lost his horse from under him, pierced by German javelins, and was thrown to the ground. Before the tribesmen could rush the downed commander, men of the 1st Legion quickly closed ranks around him as, dazed, he dragged himself to his feet. Fighting with grim determination and pride, the men of the 1st fought off the attackers. When Caecina saw more and more Germans turning from the fighting to plunder the baggage carts and pack mules, he gave orders for the baggage to be abandoned.
This was the only reason the 1st and 20th legions reached the 5th Alaudae and 21st Rapax on dry land by nightfall. The latter two legions had spent their time constructively, building a new camp while the others had been fighting for their lives, so they all had protection for the night. But the men who struggled in through the camp gate in the twilight, covered in blood, sweat and mud, and helping their wounded comrades make their way, would have been hugely unimpressed that the other two legions had deserted them. With few rations between them, and with their tents abandoned back at the causeway, they ate food soiled with mud and blood, and slept under the stars as, in the hills, the Germans sang to celebrate the taking of Roman booty that day.
In the middle of the night, there was sudden alarm in the Roman camp. Legionaries ran around crying that Germans were in the camp. Grabbing their weapons, and determined not to be trapped inside the walls, hundreds of men rushed to the camp’s decuman gate, which faced away from the Germans, demanding that it be opened. Caecina pushed through the mob, stood in their way, and ordered the men back to their beds, assuring them a horse had merely broken loose and run wild in the camp. When his men would not believe him, he drew his sword and cast determined eyes around the grim faces. The gate, he declared, stayed closed. When the troops persisted, he told them they would only pass over his dead body. [Ibid., 66]
This checked the men long enough for the tribunes and centurions to reach them. The officers were able to convince the men that there were no Germans in the camp, and the legionaries guiltily melted away. Caecina then called a council of war with all his officers, at his praetorium. There, in the early hours of the morning, Caecina discussed a desperate plan. His officers went away determined to make the plan work, and in the darkness, centurions moved among their men, taking aside legionaries who could ride, giving them special instructions.
In the hills, Arminius and his chieftains were also in conference. Arminius counseled letting the Romans leave their camp in the morning and resume the march for the Rhine. Once the legionaries were in the open and clear of the camp, he said, the Cheruscans could wipe them out. But Arminius’ uncle Inguiomerus did not want to give the Romans a chance to escape. He was all for attacking their camp at dawn and overrunning it. Other chiefs concurred. So Arminius, outvoted, agreed to lead a dawn attack on the Roman camp. [Ibid., 68]
At daybreak, the Germans swarmed out of the trees and surrounded the camp. Filling in the trench around the camp walls with hurdles woven from tree branches, the Cheruscans crossed the ditch and assailed the walls. The Roman defenders on one wall seemed to be paralyzed by fear. Led by Arminius and Inguiomerus, Germans flooded over the ramparts and into the camp, then gleefully headed for the remnants of the baggage train. Now Roman trumpets sounded. The ramparts behind the Germans suddenly filled with legionaries who repelled other tribesmen still trying to climb the wall and enter the camp.
Mounted soldiers suddenly galloped around behind the Germans; all the Roman officers had given up their horses to the fighting men and combined them with their surviving cavalry. The horsemen charged into Arminius and his followers with javelins pumping and swords flailing. Now, the Germans only wanted to escape over the walls. “Arminius and Inguiomerus fled from the battle, the first unhurt, the other severely wounded,” Tacitus was to write. Some of their men managed to escape the camp with them, but many more died in the trap. [Ibid.]
Now the camp gates opened and the legions came sweeping out in formation against the Germans outside the camp, who were “slaughtered as long as our fury and the light of day lasted,” said Tacitus. Caecina’s legionaries, though suffering from wounds and lack of rations, “found strength, healing, sustenance, indeed everything, in their victory.” [Ibid.]
When Caecina’s four legions finally reached the Rhine, bloodied, filthy, hungry and exhausted, they came without their baggage and carrying severely wounded comrades on hastily improvised litters. They found Germanicus Caesar’s wife Agrippina waiting for them at Vetera’s bridge of boats. Agrippina had forbidden the bridge’s destruction when, with Caecina’s army overdue and feared lost, the Roman commander at Vetera had wanted to dismantle it to prevent Arminius from using it. With her 2-year-old son Caligula at her side, Agrippina handed out coins, clothing and medicine to the returning men.
Following this campaign, the 1st Legion adopted the title “Germanica.” It was the only one of the eight Rhine legions to do so. Without doubt, this was taken by the 1st, or bestowed on it by Germanicus, for repulsing the Germans at Long Bridges, and most particularly for stoutly defending their general Aulus Caecina in that battle.