In the German tribes Rome found at last the antagonist who was to vanquish her. The victories of Marius and of Cæsar had been complete, but they did not crush the race. Their numbers and the solidity of their character, moulded as it was by a tenacity and a power of resistance which neither the Spaniard nor the Gaul had shown, made them practically unconquerable. The early Empire was not without ambitions in this direction. Drusus, the stepson of Augustus, carried on several campaigns in Lower Germany, and executed besides some important engineering works, in the way of canals and embankments, which were intended to make the country more accessible. But he came, once at least, very near to a terrible disaster. In b.c. 11 he had got as far as the Weser, thanks, in part at least, to the absence of his most formidable enemies, the Sicambri, who were busy fighting with the Chatti. At the Weser he felt that it would be prudent to halt and to retrace his steps. It was well that he did, for the Sicambri had settled their quarrel with their neighbours, and were now in the opposite ranks. At a place called Arbalo, which we have no means of locating, he was almost surrounded. The allied tribes threw away, by their rashness, a victory which was almost in their hands. They divided, so to speak, the Roman wolfskin before they had captured the wolf. Each tribe chose its own share of the spoil, rushed in a headlong charge to secure it, and were driven back with heavy loss, Drusus built two forts which might be convenient centres for future operations, and returned to Rome, where he had so much of the honours of a triumph as the jealousy of the Emperor permitted a subject to enjoy.
In the following year (b.c. 10) he returned to the same country, and in b.c. 9 he did the very same thing again, It was in this campaign that he reached his furthest point, making his way as far as the Elbe itself. Here indeed—so it seemed to the men of the time—was the fate-appointed limit of the Roman arms. As he was making ready to cross the Elbe, a female figure, of more than human proportions, appeared to him. "Whither goest thou, insatiable Drusus?" cried the strange apparition. "Destiny forbids thee to go further. Here is the end of thy exploits and thy life." He erected trophies on the river bank to mark the spot which he had reached, and turned back. But he never reached the Rhine. He was thrown from his horse, and received injuries from which he died. His younger brother Tiberius arrived just in time to see him alive. The last duties to the dead performed—Tiberius is said to have walked before the bier all the way from the Rhine bank to Rome—he returned to prosecute the campaign.
For some years the Roman arms met no serious check, and by a.d. 9 so much had been done in subjugating the country that Augustus conceived the idea of making it into a Roman province. For this purpose he sent an officer of high rank, who had for some years administered the province of Syria—Quintilius Varus. The new-comer was totally mistaken about the real condition of the country, which was on the brink of revolt. The native chiefs, at whose head was the famous Arminius (the Latin form of Hermann), pretended friendship and submission, assisting at the courts which he held after the fashion of an Indian durbah, and promptly executing his orders. The report of an insurrection in South Germany reached him while thus employed, and he marched southward to quell it. Arminius and his fellow-countrymen left him, under a promise to return, but really with the intention of preparing an attack. His road lay through the valleys of what is now called the Teutoburgerwald Wald, between Osnabruck and Paderborn, in Westphalia. He marched without any suspicion of danger, his army in a straggling line, encumbered with baggage and a multitude of noncombatants. Half-way through the pass they were attacked. There were three legions and a considerable force of cavalry, and for a time they successfully resisted the enemy. The camp which they pitched at the end of the first day's battle was of such a size, when it was discovered some years afterwards, as to show that the three legions were then substantially intact. The next day, after destroying his baggage, for he recognised that his position was one of extreme peril and that his only hope was to give to his army all the mobility possible, he made for the fortress of Aliso on the Lippe. All the day he was attacked, and had to struggle for every yard of road. By evening his forces had been greatly diminished, for the second camp was seen to be much smaller than the first. The third day's march brought them out of the woods, but only to encounter a fresh multitude of the enemy. Their strength was now exhausted, and they could no longer keep their ranks. Varus killed himself; his army, a very few excepted who contrived to reach Aliso, was destroyed. The effect in Germany was to throw back the frontier of Rome to the Rhine; in Rome the news produced something like a panic. The disaster embittered the remaining years of Augustus. Again and again he was known to start from his sleep and cry in tones of agony, "Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!"
Rome could not, of course, submit to such a defeat without vindicating her honour. This was not an easy task. In a.d. 14, Germanicus, the son of Drusus, marched into the country with a powerful force. He narrowly escaped disaster. Had not the divisions between the German chiefs hindered them from following up their successes—both Germanicus and his lieutenant, Cæcina, suffered serious reverses—he might have met with the fate of Varus. In the campaign of 16 he was more fortunate, and, if the Roman narratives are not exaggerated, restored the old frontiers. Arminius himself was nearly taken, and Northern Germany, between the Rhine and the Elbe, was once again Roman. But Tiberius did not like a "forward" policy. Tacitus, who abhorred the man, tells us that his motive was a mean jealousy of Germanicus, but it is likely that he saw that the resources of the Empire might be better expended. Anyhow, Germanicus was recalled, and Germany recovered her freedom; nor was any serious attempt again made, as far as the northern part of the country was concerned, to reassert the authority of Rome. It was to the south that Rome limited her efforts for dominion.