Friday, 31 May 2013

Tacitus, Annales 1.70: watch out for the dangers of the Dutch coast!

I happen to live in a part of the Netherlands which has not left any mark in ancient history. Dikes where not built till the Middle Ages and instead people lived on artificial hills for protection against the water of the Wadden Sea. These hills are still visible in the landscape and are often inhabited. It is fascinating to think that some of these hills (wierden or terpen) have been inhabited for almost 2500 years. This part of the country must have been extremely inhospitable and I still don’t understand what on earth has moved my ancestors to live here or why they did not go away during the migration period of the 3rd – 6th century. I would have been an Italian by now and enjoying far better weather than this miserable spring! Not to speak of the food, the wine and the women…
There is only one report about something happening here in this area: Tacitus wrote in his Annales how two legions almost were swept away by the water. The Wadden Sea is a shallow sea with a great difference between ebb tide and high tide. At ebb tide large parts are almost dry and traversable, but high tide comes unexpectedly for those who have no experience. The Romans had no experience…
What happened and why were the legions here? In the year 9 AD the Roman army under command of Varus suffered a devastating defeat in the Teutoburg forest in an attempt to increase their territory beyond the Rhine. Three legions were massacred and their vexilia, the legionary standards, lost. The defeat was a great shock for the Roman people and it is reported the Emperor Augustus woke up in the night, screaming:  Vare, Vare, redde legiones! Varus, Varus, give me back my legions.
After the death of Emperor Augustus, Tiberius decided to retaliate and recover the vexilia. Germanicus was made commander of an army of 55.000 - 70,000 men. A large part of this army was put on ships at a Roman base near modern The Hague and sailed over the Wadden-sea to the mouth of the river Ems in order to attack form the north. It soon appeared that the ships were too heavy for the Wadden-sea and when Germanicus had successfully finished his campaign, he ordered two legions to go back by foot, travelling alongside the coast of the Wadden Sea. When they arrive in this area suddenly a storm arises, driving the water far into the land. Hundreds if not thousands of soldiers were drowned and Tacitus describes in a vivid account their fate.
PS.  In 1987 the original site of the battle of the Teutoburg Forrest was discovered by the British army officer and amateur archaeologist Tony Clunn. Remains of Roman skeletons and armour spread over a large area were subsequently found by further excavations. Nothing of the disaster here of 2000 years ago has remained: the sea has washed everything away….

Tacitus, Annales 1.70

[70] At Germanicus legionum, quas navibus vexerat, secundam et quartam decimam itinere terrestri P. Vitellio ducendas tradit, quo levior classis vadoso mari innaret vel reciproco sideret. Vitellius primum iter sicca humo aut modice adlabente aestu quietum habuit: mox inpulsu aquilonis, simul sidere aequinoctii, quo maxime tumescit Oceanus, rapi agique agmen. et opplebantur terrae: eadem freto litori campis facies, neque discemi poterant incerta ab solidis, brevia a profundis. sternuntur fluctibus, hauriuntur gurgitibus; iumenta, sarcinae, corpora exanima interfluunt, occursant. permiscentur inter se manipuli, modo pectore, modo ore tenus extantes, aliquando subtracto solo disiecti aut obruti. non vox et mutui hortatus iuvabant adversante unda; nihil strenuus ab ignavo, sapiens ab inprudenti, consilia a casu differre: cuncta pari violentia involvebantur. tandem Vitellius in editiora enisus eodem agmen subduxit. pernoctavere sine utensilibus, sine igni, magna pars nudo aut mulcato corpore, haud minus miserabiles quam quos hostis circumsidet: quippe illic etiam honestae mortis usus, his inglorium exitium. Iux reddidit terram, penetratumque ad amnem [Visurgin], quo Caesar classe contenderat. in positae dein legiones, vagante fama submersas; nec fides salutis, antequam Caesarem exercitumque reducem videre.

veho vexi vectum: to transport
itinere terrestri: for a journey by land (The ablative is instrumental. Litt:  (to be led) through a terrestrial journey.)
vadosus: full of shallows
inno: to sail
(leviore) reciproco sideret: could ground lighter at ebb-tide (so that they could go earlier away at high-tide.)
aestus, -us (m): (of the sea) a heaving, swell, surge
adlabor adlapsus: to flow
aquilo onis (m): northern wind
sidus aequinoctii: the season of the equinox (in this case autumn)
rapi agique agmen:  historic infinitives: the army lost foot and was swept away
freto litori campis: asyndendetic enumeration
fretum: sea
incerta ab solidis: treacherous ground from solid ground
brevia: shallow waters
sterno stravi stratum: to spread
hauriuntur gurgitibus: they are swallowed by whirlpools (the under-currents below the surface of the water can be very strong and dangerous.)
iumentum: mule, beast of burden
sarcinae: package
occurso: to run against
manipuli: soldiers (especially infantery)
tenus (+ abl.): as far as, unto
extantes (ex aqua)
subtracto solo: i.e when their feet lost ground
disicio disieci disiectum: to drive asunder
obruo obrui obrutum: to drown
mutui hortatus: mutual encouragements
nihil strenuus ab ignavo, sapiens ab inprudenti, consilia a casu differre: there was nothing to distinguish etc.
strenuus: prompt, active
ignavus: slow
editiora enisus: struggling upwards to higher places (there are no hills or mountains here, so these editiora would be just one or two meters above the water.)
pernocto: to pass the night (pernoctavere = pernoctaverunt)
utensilis: (here) food
mulco: to injure
illic: apud illos i.e, those who are fighting
exitium: death
Visurgin: certainly not right as this is the Weser, far in the east of Germany. Probably Unsingin is meant,  the supposed Latin name (not recorded!) for the river Hunse, which is still streaming in this area.
quo Caesar classe contenderat: where Germanicus had arrived with his fleet
vagante fama submerses: the rumour went that they were drowned
redux reducis (adi.): coming back (the singular is because the main concern was for the safety of Germanicus.)
videre: historic infinitive


Reconstruction of the Netherlands of around 50 AD.  The greenish part in the North is the Wadden Sea and was inundated at high tide.