The Museum of Roman Countermarks
Back to RNG Mainpage
Roman Military Mainpage
To the Countermark Mainpage
To Countermarks of Augustus
 
 

 The Varus Debate:

in the year 9 AD, exactly 2000 years ago, the Roman military machine lost apparently 3 legions in the swamps of Germany.

Not much is archeologically confirmed though. There is a presumed battlefield at Kalriese, claiming to be "it", but without hard enough evidence. It was a battlefield alright, but one cannot even distinguish late Augustean (one of the battlefields during the Varus campaign) from Early Tiberian context (ie Germanicus), There is however a grave stone in the Bonn museum clearly confirming that there was indeed a Varus war (as has been described by various Roman historians in surviving texts).

A countermark frequently found on Roman copper/bronze coins in the region (VAR in ligature) has been commonly attributed to Varus, and is used to support the cause of Kalkriese, but is there enough evidence to support the claim that this countermark "VAR in ligature" stands for Varus ?
 

Can the countermark VAR be assigned to Varus?

"VAR" has been proposed for many decades to stand for Publius Quinctilius Varus, Legatus of Germania, who lost three legions, LEG XVII, XVIII, XVIIII, to the Germans under Arminius in 9AD. 


This attribution has caused this relatively common countermark to reach enormous price levels (up to some 2000€s).
The location of the Varus battle site to Kalkriese near Osnabrück is mainly based on that assumption, as coins with "VAR" were found in the excavations. If VAR is not Varus, then that site could not be dated to other than late Augustean - Tiberian time frame. The Germanicus campaign hypothesis assumes that Kalkriese was not the Varus battle site, but represents a later battle site of Germanicus' troops with the Germans in 15 or 16 AD.

The Varus Debate: Pro The Varus Debate: Con
"VAR" is relatively common with maybe up 500-1000 pieces known, and geographically spread over a very wide area:  from Gallia to the Rhine and even into the Danube area. 
Varus clearly controlled more than just the legions he lost, with others stationed on the Rhine under his legate Lucius Asprenas. The widespread distribution is not unreasonable for a Legatus with at least 5 legions under his command and whose countermarked coins would have continued to circulate after his death. In addition there was substantial troop movement shortly after his death This widespread distribution is suprising for a general who lost so heavily and whose memory was not honored. 
"VAR" is always applied later than the "large wheel", "IMP", and "CVAL", 
but before or simultaneously to "AVC". 
This would be consistent with a countermark applied late during the reign of Augustus (but does not exclude Tiberius as the AVC countermark continued to be in use during his reign). 
A coin exists, in the municipal museum of Rennes, with "VAR" applied over "TIBAVC". "TIBAVC" (Pangerl Collection CMK 30) is a Tiberian countermark. This makes the Varus hypothesis very unlikely, if not impossible. The coin has been published in R.Martini; CAESAR AUGUSTUS in Glaux special series II, 2001, ENNERE, Milano), pp 193-194 (see image below)
, . 
Varus had the authority to issue local coins. Local provinical coins were issued in Africa Proconsularis as well as in Syria, with his name in the legend and in some cases also with his bust. Since he had the authority to issue local coins, he may have had the authority to countermark imperial coins in the West also. However no such local coins exist in Gallia or the Rhine border region, while local coins issued in the name of Roman officials seem to be common in Eastern Provinces under Augustus. A second example was recently brought to our attention. "VAR" overstrikes "TIB" square. "TIB" square (Pangerl Collection CMK 50)  is a Tiberian countermark. Published in R. Martini, Collezione Pangerl, Nomismata 6, 2003, pp xlix-li. 
This makes the Varus hypothesis very unlikely, if not impossible. 
There are also countermarks in the Syrian province on local provincial coins which were attributabed to Varus, e.g. by Howgego; Greek Imperial Countermarks numbers 658 and 659 show "VAR","PVAR" and "QVAR" ligatures. These appear to be co-temporal to Varus' term of office as governor of Syria. These countermarks are quite similar in texture to the western VAR under discussion. No definite proof is possible however. Both "TIBAVC" and "TIB" are Tiberian countermarks ("TIBAVC" known on Drusus Junior Coins of 22/23 AD). Thus, if VAR is co-temporal with Tiberius, then VAR cannot stand for Varus, as he died with his legions in Germania prior to Tiberius' assumption of power in 14AD. 
CVAL is found in association with VAR. CVAL is theorized to be one of Varus' generals (Wolters, Germania 73 (1995), 145-150), commander of the cavalry, standing for C. Numonius Vala. CVAL is always applied before VAR, but never after. This would be consistent with a coin countermarked by Vala, which could then have circulated to other troops not associated with Vala, and could have been then countermarked by Varus' authority. Again no definite proof is possible.
In summary it seems best to remain neutral with regard to the attribution of "VAR" to Varus. There seems to be a lot of wishful thinking and financial interests involved.

Here the coin with VAR over TIBAVC that triggered the Varus Debate (copyright R. Martini, from R.Martini; CAESAR AUGUSTUS in Glaux special series II, ENNERE, Milano), from the Municipal Museum, Rennes, France.
VAR over TIBAVC
 

P Quinctilius Varus
as Governor of Syria

 

as Governor of Africa (coin with his portrait) from the RGZM Mainz, Germany

The Varus Battle (the end of LEG XVII, XVIII, XVIIII)

Here the only archeological artefact clearly pointing to the Varus desaster:


This impressive stone is now in the Bonn Museum. The text reads:

"To Marcus Caelius, son of Titus, of the Lemonian voting tribe, from Bologna, a centurion in the First Order of legio XVIII,
aged 53; He fell in the Varian War. His bones - if found - may be placed in this monument. Publius Caelius, son of Titus, of the Lemonian voting
 tribe, his brother, set this up."
 
 

If you want to see more of the Varus battle, here other interesting links:


To RNG section countermarks of Augustus
To the Roman Numismatic Gallery main page