Teutoburg Forest

Teutoburg Forest

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The story of the AD 9 Varus Disaster (Clades Variana), or Battle of the Teutoburg, is a compelling one. Under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus, the historical sources tell us, three Roman legions – usually identified as the 17th, 18th, and 19th legions, although no historical source makes this explicit – were led into an extended ambush in the dark and dangerous Teutoburg Forest in Germania, and never walked out again. The ambush was masterminded by Arminius, the chieftain of the Cherusci tribe & former Roman auxiliary commander, who used his insider knowledge of the tactical workings of the Roman army to exploit their weaknesses.

The battle lasted for several days, with the Roman army managing to maintain combat cohesion through most of the running battle. They even managed to construct makeshift marching camps in which they sheltered overnight, still hopeful of outrunning the Germans or fighting their way out of the ambush zone and reaching safe Roman territory. It was only on the final day of the battle, with their ranks sufficiently thinned and the remaining soldiers physically exhausted beyond the point of resistance, that the Roman army was finally overwhelmed by the Germanic force and destroyed. At this stage, according to the historian Cassius Dio, the Roman soldiers gave up their last hopes of survival after hearing of the death (likely suicide) of Varus (Cassius Dio, Roman History 56.22.1):

When news of this had spread, none of the rest, even if he had any strength left, defended himself any longer. Some imitated their leader, and others, casting aside their arms, allowed anybody who pleased to slay them for to flee was impossible, however much one might desire to do so. Every man, therefore, and every horse was cut down without fear of resistance.

The battle was one of the most iconic and damaging defeats that the Roman army ever suffered, and has been seen as one of the turning points of European history. The impression given by many historical interpretations of the battle is that none of the Roman soldiers caught in the ambush survived. This position has been re-enforced by dramatic reconstructions of the battle, such as the recent Netflix series Barbaren (Barbarians), which also often fail to properly illustrate the extended nature of the ambush, and the dogged resistance of the Roman army through several days of attack. But while the legions caught up in the battle did sustain very heavy casualties, there were Roman survivors at the end of the ambush.

Some Roman soldiers were captured alive by Arminius’ force. The fate of many Roman captive soldiers seems to have been bleak – and short. Several of the historical sources recount that some were subjected to torture and ritual execution – particularly, according to Florus, those who asked for mercy on legal grounds (Epitome II.30.36). Tacitus recounts the use of gibbets and torture-pits on other captured prisoners (Annals 1.61). In many ways, these captured soldiers can also be considered casualties of the battle itself, with their deaths coming soon after the actual attack.

However, other captive soldiers were sold into Germanic slavery, and lived much longer – some for decades after the battle. A small number crop up, almost out of nowhere, in a brief account by Tacitus of a Roman expedition to Germania to deal with a Chatti raiding band early in the reign of Claudius. The Roman troops overwhelmed the Chatti, & at the same time, were able to liberate a small number of Roman soldiers captured during the ambush at the Teutoburg (Tacitus, Annals 12.27):

The exultation of the men was heightened by the fact that, after forty years, they had redeemed from slavery a few survivors of the Varian disaster.

Little is known of their life in captivity, nor what happened to them after their liberation. The passage of time since the battle means that few of them could have been less than 60 years old, a decent age in the Roman world – certainly an unexpected age for Roman slaves in Germanic captivity.

Other Roman soldiers were able to flee the battlefield without being captured, or were able to escape soon after being taken, making their way safely back to Roman territory – where, presumably, their testimony formed the basis of the narrative accounts of the battle which survive in the ancient historical sources. None of the surviving sources document a successful escape of soldiers from the ambush, although Velleius Paterculus (Roman History II.119.4) describes an unsuccessful attempt made by some of the cavalry.

The successful escape by some soldiers is recorded by Tacitus, in his narrative of the Germanic campaigns of Germanicus in AD 15, conducted to avenge the Teutoburg. During the campaign, Germanicus diverted his army to the site of the Teutoburg ambush, to pay ritual tribute to Varus and his men, and to bury any exposed remains. Tacitus describes how some of the soldiers who escape the ambush returned to the battle site with Germanicus and guided him around, particularly the area where the final actions of the battle took place (Annals 1.61):

Survivors of the disaster, who had escaped the battle or their chains, told how here the legates fell, there the eagles were taken, where the first wound was dealt upon Varus, and where he found death by the suicidal stroke of his own unhappy hand. They spoke of the tribunal from which Arminius made his harangue, all the gibbets and torture-pits for the prisoners, and the arrogance with which he insulted the standards and eagles.

The fact that these survivors were able to conduct Germanicus around the area where the late stages of the battle had been played out suggests that they had not escaped from the battle in the early stages, during the first days of the attack when the Roman army maintained combat cohesion, but had been involved until the very end.

Undeniably, the Roman casualties in the Varus Disaster were high. The numbers of the legions presumed to be involved in the battle were permanently retired (and are not even mentioned in any of the surviving sources), suggesting that either there were not enough men left to maintain the units, or that they were unwilling to serve in such now-inauspicious units. However, while the number of Roman survivors was undoubtedly low, there were some who lived long after the battle, some evading or escaping captivity entirely, others spending decades in slavery.

For this reason, it can be stated that the claim that there were no Roman survivors of the AD 9 Varus Disaster is false. However, the survivors likely represented only a tiny proportion of the soldiers who had marched in to the ambush.

Alternative History – The Teutoburg Disaster

“What if” history questions can be a divisive. Some view them as an exercise in futility, a place where no serious historians should go. Others see them as a great way to explore the actual impact of certain events, helpful in determining which events and outcomes truly hold the most weight when it comes to changing history.

The Roman disaster at Teutoburg forest was a terrible defeat, with thousands of Romans killed in the dense German woodland and many soldiers subsequently enslaved. It’s a misconception that the defeat kicked the Romans out of Germania permanently. They actually led a series of punitive expeditions with mixed results in ensuing decades and the instigator of the ambush, Arminius, was eventually assassinated.

Despite further raids, Rome did not pursue Germania the same way as they did Gaul. The Rhine River was an easy place to fall back on it provided a strong defense and one of the shortest barriers the Romans could hope for on their western European front. The Romans would face more problems from the Germans, however, and the fall of the West was further hastened by barbarian invasions through the Rhine, among other areas.

Yet what if the Romans had sniffed out the ambush? What if they not only avoided the trap but killed Arminius and gave the waiting army an ambush of their own? This is a far stretch to hypothesize that Varus could successfully trap or decisively defeat an army in heavily forested and hostile territory, but it’s worth considering as a possible alternative.

The Teutoburg Forest on a foggy and rainy day. Photo Credit.

Such a resounding defeat of an army of Germans hostile to Rome would have combined with the execution of a German traitor who was serving with the Romans to send a powerful message to the whole area. Not only would many of the warriors against Rome be killed, but their defeat would silence those thinking about revolting. Arminius rallied a great many men to his cause before and after Teutoburg, and without him, the support would not have been the same.

Perhaps Rome would have decisively conquered Germania, as they had done before in Gaul. Many think that Germania was so poor that it would cost more to conquer it than could have been gained in plunder and tributes. While this certainly may be true, it is not a guarantee that the Romans would have withdrawn had they won at Teutoburg.

Map showing the defeat of Varus in the Teutoburg Forest. Image Credit.

The Roman conquest of Britain was tremendously expensive, and it was a laborious process to win over the scattered tribes. Germania had fierce warriors and difficult terrain, but a lot more was possible with this region. Iron, copper, and salt were all potential resources in the area, as well as a steady supply of slaves as the Romans pushed east. Rome was a land of farmers at its core, and Germania, with its many river systems, offered plenty of land for agricultural development.

The defensibility of the Rhine is the biggest argument as to why nothing would change. Though circumstances were different in Britain, the Romans chose to build Hadrian’s Wall in the north, rather than attempt to pacify the area now known as Scotland. The Rhine wasn’t perfect everywhere, but large stretches proved to be amazing natural barriers. The farther east you go, the wider the front gets until you get to the massive, often indefensible plains of Russia.

Germania would add a sizable and sensible chunk of territory to the empire in purely geographical terms. Photo Credit.

While it is true that the Romans did have success in Germania after Teutoburg and still decided to move behind the Rhine, it could have been different. With the possible pacification of the nearer tribes, the Romans could have had a base to expand on the east of the Rhine. From there they had the Elbe River – no small obstacle.

The Elbe could have given the Romans room to move east and defend from there. It empties just before the Jutland Peninsula and east of the Netherlands, which actually became fairly Romanized.

Perhaps a better river would have been the Vistula River much further to the east in modern-day Poland, running from the Carpathian Mountains of Roman Dacia and flowing through modern Krakow and Warsaw.

Autumn in Teutoburg Forest. Photo Credit.

The Carpathians are not as bold as the Alps, and have a few passes and lowland areas, but given the wealth of the Dacian region, perhaps some larger and more fortified population centers would occupy those areas. A problem area may have been the direct route southwest into modern Bucharest, but the desire to stretch up the Black Sea coast could have seen a solid presence here.

This would make the Roman Eastern European frontier a much more solid line instead of the winding thread running down and across the Alps. Germania is hardly far from Italy, compared to many of Rome’s other territories and would have better centralized Roman power. The Jutland Peninsula would still be there, as well as Ireland and Scotland, but really the only serious trouble would have come from internal revolts, which we’ll get to later.

The East was still wealthy, but the West would have the raw resources – bearing in mind that salt was imported from the North Atlantic quite often in Roman times – and manpower as the blend of Roman, Gallic and Germanic cultures would have produced a large agrarian population with an imposing battlefield presence. The military life of the legion would be appealing enough for a lot of the population and there would be less of a problem of foreign degradation of the armies if Germania was sufficiently Romanized.

Reconstruction of the improvised fortifications prepared by the Germanic tribes for the final phase of the Varus battle near Kalkriese. Photo Credit.

Lack of manpower was a problem when defending such vast frontiers, but taking Germania and as far as the Vistula would narrow the frontier and provide a total population gain of about 5 million, enough of fighting age to significantly bolster the legions’ potential manpower.

However, things may not have been so simple.

I have assumed that, under ideal circumstances, things could have normalized reasonably quickly with a decision to retreat to the Rhine despite a Teutoburg victory. Even with all of Germany conquered and Romanized, there would still be the possibility of rebellions and invasions. The previously mentioned Romanized area of the Netherlands did actually revolt against the Romans at one point.

Unfortunate campaign of Germanicus, unknown artist, circa 1900.

Unless the Romans wanted to face the harsh environments of Scandinavia – and they had absolutely no reason to – the population there could have presented difficulties. If the Roman empire persisted through to the great warming period starting around the 900’s, then they would have faced the exploding Viking population. On top of that, the Picts of Scotland would still provide problems unless the Romans had the confidence and determination to take all of Britain and Ireland.

Finally, the massive invasion of Huns would have been quite difficult to stop, regardless of any power bases and fortified lines. Infighting, civil wars, and revolts were sure to continue. Gaul and surrounding regions proved to be powerful enough to stand on their own during the crises of the third century, a unified Gaul and Germania might pummel Italy down and just breed a system of Gallo-Germanic claims to the throne. A complete reversal of the outcome of Teutoburg forest could have made Rome so powerful that history might be entirely different today. Alternativly, it could have done no more that save the lives of the Roman soldiers present in Teutoburg forest on that fateful day.

Regardless of the answer you might reach, the question is certainly worth asking.

21 – The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest

Augustus decides to invade Germania and Romanize it as he did with Gallia. Family drama and an insurrection give the Germans a chance to revolt. What follows is one of Rome’s greatest tragedies and a history-defining moment for Gallia, Rome and Europe.

If history teaches us anything it is that conquering a foreign land is easy, but holding it is incredibly difficult. This is compounded when the conquered culture is entirely different from the conquerors. In our last episode the Roman general and heir to the empire Drusus conquered western Germania in 9 BCE, raising hopes of Roman rule over Magna Germania. Furthermore, if Germania was conquered, Gallic rebels would lose the ability to call upon the Germans for aid, which they occasionally did during the Gallic Wars. Augustus believed that if Germania was pacified then Gaul would be safe from any future invasion. But the urban, Mediterranean Romans greatly underestimated the tenacity and cunning of the woods-dwelling, Germans

While Augustus wanted to push further into Germania the death of his beloved adopted son Drusus sent him into a period of deep mourning. This was compounded by the fact that Tiberius, the second in line to the throne, was constantly fighting with his adoptive father. See, Tiberius had done something which the Romans found wholly strange and unnatural: he was in love with a woman. While it was expected of Roman men to marry women and bear children, passionate love that inspired songs and poems was viewed as the sort of effeminate, unmanly thing that half-men and Greeks did. Roman men were taught that sex with young men was for pleasure while sex with women was purely for procreation. In fact, sexually pleasing women was considered unmanly. A good Roman loved Rome and battle, not women. In fact, Pompey’s rivals often slandered him by saying he loved his wife.

In 19 BCE Augustus forced Tiberius to marry Vipsania Agrippina, the daughter of Agrippa, Augustus’ former general and second-in-command of the empire. Tiberius fell in love with Agrippina and the two had a child together. Agrippa’s death in 12 BCE meant that Tiberius’ marriage was no longer politically relevant. Augustus decided that the best way to secure Tiberius’ future was if he divorced Agrippina and married his own daughter, Julia. Tiberius was outraged at the thought of abandoning his beloved, the mother of his son to marry a woman who he considered to have loose morals. It didn’t help that Julia despised Tiberius as beneath her. But Augustus commanded Tiberius to do his duty and put Rome before his heart. With utmost reluctance Tiberius divorced Agrippina and married Julia. At the time of their divorce, Agrippina was pregnant with a second child, though this did not survive, and it is possible that Tiberius blamed himself, or more likely Augustus, for this misfortune.

Tiberius fell into a deep depression and publicly longed for his ex-wife. In 9 BCE he spotted Agrippina on the street, followed her to her new house and begged her to take him back. Augustus was infuriated and he ordered Tiberius never to see Agrippina again. Pliny the Elder claimed Tiberius was the gloomiest man who ever walked the Earth during this period. Augustus and Tiberius’ conflict became so heated that Augustus gave up on Tiberius, adopted Agrippa’s sons and groomed them for succession instead. In 6 BCE Tiberius went into self-imposed exile in Rhodes, giving up his claim to succession in favor of the two.

But fate had not given up on Tiberius. In 2 CE the first brother Lucius died of an unknown illness in Massilia. Two years later, Gaius died fighting in Armenia. The sudden death of Augustus’ heirs forced him to recall Tiberius, who was probably more willing to return to Rome since in 2 BCE his estranged wife Julia was exiled for adultery and treason for plotting against Augustus.

All of this family drama kept Augustus from focusing on the empire’s new German territories. For 13 years western Germania had been under nominal Roman rule, but in practice little had changed. Powerful tribes still dominated society and there was very little trade and construction on the eastern side of the Rhine.

Tiberius and his legions toured throughout Germania from 4-5 CE as a show of strength and to intimidate the Germans into paying taxes to Rome. After awing the western Germans, Tiberius decided he was going to surpass his brother’s accomplishments and invade Magna Germania. The plan was for Tiberius to lead 8 legions from the Middle Rhine against king Maroboduus of Boiohaemum or modern-day Bohemia, while simultaneously three legions from the Lower Rhine flanked his position. The legions positioned themselves and were about to march in 6 CE when a major rebellion broke out in Illyria, that province just east of Italy across the Adriatic Sea. This revolt evolved into a war known as the Bellum Batonianum, the War of the Batos, named after their leaders Bato the Daesitiate and Bato the Breucian, and was one of the largest revolts Rome had ever faced. Illyria had long provided auxiliary armies to Rome’s legions, meaning the Illyrians were disciplined, organized and had large-standing armies. Ancient sources are prone to exaggeration but the Batos’ total forces probably numbered in the hundreds of thousands. This massive revolt by professional soldiers just east of Italy delayed the invasion of Germania as Tiberius fought them from 6-9 CE.

Augustus and Tiberius again ignored Germania and in 6 CE Augustus made Publius Quinctilius Varus governor of the German territories. The classical sources villainize Varus because of his later failures, but modern scholars have been kinder to him. Modern scholars argue that Varus was probably not any more corrupt than your average Roman governor, though that isn’t saying too much. Furthermore, he was a decently-intelligent administrator, who had served as governor of Africa and then Syria before his tenure in Germania. Varus did have two major faults though: he was a mediocre governor in an un-Romanized territory that needed someone brilliant, and he was a poor military strategist on the most hostile border of the empire. Had he been stationed as governor of an Iberian province, or somewhere in Anatolia, he probably would have lived a decent if unremarkable life. Instead, this mediocre man was given the most important governorship in the entire Roman world.

Varus understood that as long as Germania remained German it would always be hostile to Roman rule. Varus looked across the Rhine at Gallia as an example of how to successfully reform a rebellious, supposedly ‘barbarian’ people into Romans. He decided to rapidly Romanize the province by creating cities and having Germans adopt a Roman identity to replace tribal affiliations. Varus collected taxes, founded new settlements and administered justice when needed. However, he was largely dismissive of the Germans who he viewed as backward and uncivilized and demanded tribute. These heavy-handed tactics imbittered the Germans against the Roman presence. In 9 CE one of Varus’ trusted German advisors Arminius, told him a revolt was happening to the east. The governor assembled three legions and marched to quash the rebellion.

But before we get to that we have to backtrack a little and bring Arminius into the story because he is an incredibly important historical figure. Born in 18 BCE, Arminius was the eldest son of a German chief. During Drusus campaigns’ Arminius’ father offered him as a hostage. The young boy was taken to Rome where he was educated in Latin and learned Roman-style warfare and probably served in some capacity in the legions. Around 8 CE Arminius was transferred to western Germania where he served as an important liaison for governor Varus since he was still a German noble. Varus grew to like Arminius who feigned mutual respect.

But Arminius hated Varus and the Romans. Arminius believed Rome was destroying everything that made Germania what it was. It took Germania’s young men from their homes and raised them to fight as auxiliaries in its armies, a very dishonorable position. While the native Germans did have some organization they were still able to gain individual honor in combat. Meanwhile Roman-style warfare subsumed the identity of individual soldiers in favor of the unit. Furthermore, auxiliaries didn’t get the same honors as the legions and they were subordinate to the legions.

In addition to this dishonorable style of warfare, Arminius hated how the Romans disrespected Germanic culture. They imported wine, theater and other unmanly and decadent lifestyles. Rome burned and cut down beautiful sacred forests to construct its ugly forts and walled cities. They built shrines to foreign gods and discouraged worship of the Germanic pantheon. And all of this was paid for by harsh tribute exacted from the conquered German people. Arminius balked at the thought of his hardy, sylvan, warrior-people turning into soft, wine-addled, effeminate city-dwellers and he plotted with Germanic chiefs to ambush the Romans.

On Arminius’ advice, Varus marched eastward in the summer of 9 CE with three legions and six auxiliary cohorts until they arrived in west-central Germania. Varus administered Roman justice and collected tribute while his legions occupied the territory while Arminius coordinated his German allies. Arminius’ plot was almost undone when his uncle told Varus of his scheme. But Varus dismissed the warning, trusting in his young advisor. As autumn approached the Romans prepared to head back to the Rhine when they got news of a revolt northwest of their position. Arminius suggested that they crush the rebellion before it had a chance to grow. Varus agreed and marched his troops northwest into the Teutoburg Forest.

Varus believed this was a minor rebellion, incapable of standing up against his incredible army of three legions, six auxiliary cohorts and three cavalry cohorts. As such, his men marched out of formation and interspersed among them were camp followers. The massive army was spread out an incredible 15-20 kilometers from front to back. The Romans were marching through mud across a low glade with low visibility due to the thick woods. To the south the Germans constructed a 400-meter long spiked palisade wall along the hills. To the north was an impassable swamp. There was no better place on Earth for an ambush.

On a signal the Germans hurled javelins at the Romans from their fortified position then burst out of their fortifications. The Romans were caught completely off-guard and were unable to get into position since the legionaries walked alongside auxiliaries and camp followers. The camp followers and many cowardly or disloyal auxiliaries fled, bumping into the legionaries, causing chaos and such a noise that the commanders couldn’t be heard above the commotion. Before the battle Arminius had taught his fellow Germans how Roman formations worked and the Germans directed large groups to swallow up smaller cohorts one by one.

The Romans fought for their lives but the Germans had every advantage and the slaughter was immense. When night fell the Romans regrouped and built a fortified camp north of the killing fields. But this camp just meant they were now surrounded by a superior force who understood the terrain and their tactics. Varus knew his men couldn’t survive long in enemy territory so the following morning they attempted to break out. That morning a storm drenched the battlefield, rendering the Roman bows useless as the sinews went slack when wet. Meanwhile German javelins remained deadly effective. After another day of slaughter a number of Romans managed to escape and head northwestward. There they fell into another trap as a German army waited in the surrounding hills and slaughtered the remainder of the army. Nearly every Roman soldier who had marched with Varus that summer was either killed, enslaved or fled.

The Germans showed no mercy to their captives. Tacitus recounts, “They put out the eyes of some of them and cut off the hands of others they sewed up the mouth of one of them after first cutting out his tongue, which one of the barbarians held in his hand, exclaiming “At last, you viper, you have ceased to hiss.” Others were boiled or burned alive as sacrifices to the German gods.

This was the greatest Roman military disaster since the Battle of Carrhae. The 17 th , 18 th and 19 th legions were destroyed and their numbers went unused for fear of bad luck. Their eagles had been captured. Worse still, much of Germania was now uniting under Arminius to expel the Roman invaders. Arminius’ first act as the leader of the German tribes was to behead governor Varus and send his head to Maroboduus, king of Bohemia. Marobodouus was the only German with power to rival Arminius, and the young upstart wanted the old king to know who held true power in Germania.

Next, Arminius ordered the mass beheading of the dead Romans and the confiscation of their armor. He then turned his armies westward towards the Roman fort of Aliso. They must have been a terrible sight to behold. Perhaps a third of that army would be wearing dented, dirty Roman armor, covered in dried blood, while the rest wore traditional German accoutrements. When they arrived at the fort Arminius’ troops displayed the heads of the slain legionaries. The Germans assaulted the camp though they were pushed back by the stalwart defenders. A storm broke out and the Roman soldiers escaped, leaving the civilians to the Germans, who captured the fort and the territories east of the Rhine. These fleeing Romans made it to Gallia and told about the slaughter of the three legions and Varus’ death. Shock and mourning gripped Rome. When Augustus heard about what had happened he rent his clothes and screamed, “Varus, give me back my legions!”

While Augustus ruled the empire from Rome, Tiberius was put in charge of halting the German army and reconquering their lost territory on the east bank of the Rhine. Tiberius fought with Arminius from 10-11 CE when word came to him that the 73 year old Augustus had fallen ill. Tiberius returned to Rome to secure his succession while leaving his son Germanicus Julius Caesar to fight Arminius. In 14 CE Augustus passed, and Tiberius became the new Roman emperor.

By the end of 16 CE Tiberius decided that the eastern Rhine was lost. Against Germanicus’ protests, Emperor Tiberius ended the wars with Arminius and stationed the legions in forts all across the Rhine frontier. Rarely did the Romans ever cross the Rhine again.

But what of the German threat? Well, whether Tiberius showed wisdom or whether his exhaustion turned to good fortune, the retreat across the Rhine ended the threat of German invasion. Arminius recognized that attacking Roman forts outside of Germania was a losing strategy. Instead he decided he was going to conquer the rest of Germania. In 17 or 18 CE he waged war against the only German who rivaled his power, Maroboduus. Arminius defeated his armies and Maroboduus fled, taking asylum in Rome.

Arminius had done the unthinkable: he was King of Germania. But even as he ascended to this unprecedented position the chiefs of the various tribes plotted against him. The Germans viewed themselves as a free people who did not bend the knee to kings or emperors and Arminius was killed by his fellow chiefs. Arminius’ execution meant that the Germans refused to be ruled by anyone, even their own.

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest had a major impact on Rome and Gallia. For the Romans, this was a second major invasion of a foreign land that had ended in complete slaughter after Crassus’ invasion of Persia. From this point on to the fall of the empire Rome did not engage in any large-scale expansion, and instead it concentrated on securing its borders. [The only major provinces added were Dacia and briefly Mesopotamia, though this was quickly abandoned].

For Gallia and the people who lived there the Battle of the Teutoburg forest made them civilized in the Roman eyes. Gallia was relatively peaceful by this time, even more so than some older Roman provinces such as Illyria. They had large cities, industry, were part of the priesthood and served in the army. Henceforth, the governors of Gallia and the Roman state propagated the notion that the Three Gauls were a noble, civilized land with cultured people that were part of a great Roman community. Meanwhile Germania was a culture-less, city-less forested expanse with violent barbarians.

Next time, this relationship will be tested as the Druids make one final stand against Rome and its gods.

Ancient History Encyclopedia

King, Anthony, Roman Gaul and Germany, 1990.

Guerard Albert Leon French Civilization: From Its Origins to the Close of the Middle Ages, 1921.


The etymology of the Latin name Arminius is unknown confusion is further created by contemporary scholars who alternately referred to him as Armenus. [10] Marcus Velleius Paterculus, in his Historiae, mentions him as "Arminius, the son of Sigimer, a prince of [the Germanic] nation" and states he "attained the dignity of equestrian rank". [11] Due to Roman naming conventions of the time, it is likely Arminius is an adopted name granted to him upon citizenship, or otherwise not his Cheruscan name the name Arminius is ultimately of Etruscan origin, appearing as armne and armni on inscriptions found at Volaterrae. [12] According to another theory, that name was given to Arminius for his service in Armenia. [10]

The German translation of Arminius as Hermann dates from the 16th century, possibly first by Martin Luther. [13] In German, Arminius was traditionally known as Hermann der Cherusker ("Hermann the Cheruscan") or Hermann der Cheruskerfürst ("Hermann the Cheruscan Prince"). Hermann etymologically means "Man of War", coming from the Old High German heri "war" and man "man". [14] [15]

Born in 18 or 17 BC in Germania, Arminius was the son of the Cheruscan chief Segimerus (German: Segimer Proto-Germanic: Sigimariz Old English: Sigemaer), [16] who was allied with Rome. [ citation needed ]

Arminius learned to speak Latin and joined the Roman military alongside his younger brother Flavus. He served in the Roman army between AD 1 and 6, and received a military education as well as Roman citizenship and the status of equite before returning to Germania. [17] [16] These experiences gave him knowledge of Roman politics and military tactics, which allowed him to successfully anticipate enemy battle maneuvers during his later campaigns against the Roman army. [ citation needed ]

Battle of the Teutoburg Forest Edit

Around the year AD 4, Arminius assumed command of a Cheruscan detachment of Roman auxiliary forces, probably while fighting in the Pannonian wars on the Balkan peninsula. He returned to northern Germania in AD 7 or 8, where the Roman Empire had established secure control of the territories just east of the Rhine, along the Lippe and Main rivers, and was now seeking to extend its hegemony eastward to the Weser and Elbe rivers, under Publius Quinctilius Varus, a high-ranking administrative official appointed by Augustus as governor. Arminius began plotting to unite various Germanic tribes in order to thwart Roman efforts to incorporate their lands into the empire. This proved a difficult task, as the tribes were strongly independent and many were traditionally enemies of each other [ citation needed ] .

Between AD 6 and 9, the Romans were forced to move eight of the eleven legions present in Germania east of the Rhine to crush a rebellion in the Balkans, [18] leaving Varus with only three legions to face the Germans, which was still 18,000 troops or 6000 men per legion. An additional two legions, under the command of Lucius Nonius Asprenas, were stationed in Moguntiacum. [19] Arminius saw this as the perfect opportunity to defeat Varus. [20]

In the autumn of AD 9, the 25-year-old Arminius brought to Varus a false report of rebellion in northern Germany. He persuaded Varus to divert the three legions under his command (composed of the 17th, 18th, and 19th legions, plus three cavalry detachments and six cohorts of auxiliaries), which were at the time marching to winter quarters, to suppress the rebellion. Varus and his legions marched right into the trap that Arminius had set for them near Kalkriese. Arminius' tribe, the Cherusci, and their allies the Marsi, Chatti, Bructeri, Chauci, and Sicambri (five out of at least fifty Germanic tribes at the time) [9] ambushed and annihilated Varus' entire army, totaling over 20,000 men, as it marched along a narrow road through a dense forest. Recent archaeological finds show the long-debated location of the three-day battle was almost certainly near Kalkriese Hill, about 20 kilometres (12 mi) north of present-day Osnabrück. When defeat was certain, Varus committed suicide by falling on his sword [ citation needed ] . The battle was one of the most devastating defeats Rome suffered in its history. Arminius' success in destroying three entire legions and driving the Romans out of Germany marked a high point of Germanic power for centuries. Roman attempts to reconquer Germania failed, although they did eventually manage to break Arminius' carefully coordinated alliance [ citation needed ] .

Roman retaliation, inter-tribal conflicts, and death Edit

After the battle, the Germans quickly annihilated every trace of Roman presence east of the Rhine. Roman settlements such as the Waldgirmes Forum were abandoned. The vastly outnumbered Roman garrison of Aliso (present-day Haltern am See), under the command of the prefect Lucius Cedicius, inflicted heavy losses on the Germans before retreating into Gaul, resisting long enough for Lucius Nonius Asprenas to organize the Roman defense on the Rhine and Tiberius to arrive with a new army. This prevented Arminius from crossing the Rhine and invading Gaul. [21]

Between AD 14 and 16, Germanicus led punitive operations into Germany, fighting Arminius to a draw in the Battle at Pontes Longi and twice defeating him (according to Tacitus): first in the Battle of Idistaviso and later at the Battle of the Angrivarian Wall. In AD 15, Roman troops managed to recapture one of the three legionary eagles lost in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. In AD 16, a second eagle was retrieved. [22] Tiberius denied the request of Germanicus to launch an additional campaign for AD 17, however, having decided the frontier with Germania would stand at the Rhine river. Instead, he offered Germanicus the honor of a triumph for his two victories. The third Roman eagle was recovered in AD 41 by Publius Gabinius, under the emperor Claudius. [23] Arminius also faced opposition from his father-in-law and other pro-Roman Germanic leaders. [24] His brother Flavus, who had been raised alongside him in Rome, remained loyal to the Roman Empire and fought under Germanicus against Arminius at the Battle of Idistaviso. With the end of the Roman threat, a war broke out between Arminius and Marbod, king of the Marcomanni. It ended with Marbod fleeing to Ravenna and Roman protection, but Arminius failed to break into the "natural fortification" of Bohemia, and the war ended in stalemate.

In AD 19, Germanicus died in Antioch under circumstances which led many to believe he had been poisoned by his opponents. Arminius died two years later, in AD 21, murdered by opponents within his own tribe who felt that he was becoming too powerful. [25] [26] Tiberius allegedly had refused an earlier offer from a Chatti nobleman to poison Arminius: "It was not by secret treachery but openly and by arms that the people of Rome avenged themselves on their enemies." [27]

Marriage to Thusnelda Edit

Arminius married a Germanic princess named Thusnelda. [28] Her father was the Cheruscan prince Segestes, who was pro-Roman. After the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, Arminius abducted and then impregnated Thusnelda circa 14 AD. This elopement was likely a result of a dispute between Arminius and Segestes who was against their relationship. [29] [28] In May 15 AD the Roman general Germanicus captured Thusnelda. At the point of her capture she was pregnant and living with her father, who had taken her back. [30] Arminius deeply grieved the capture of Thusnelda and did not marry again. [31] Tacitus recorded that Arminius was "driven to frenzy" by the loss of his beloved wife. [32] [33] Tacitus states in The Annals:

Arminius, with his naturally furious temper, was driven to frenzy by the seizure of his wife and the foredooming to slavery of his wife's unborn child. He flew hither and thither among the Cherusci, demanding "war against Segestes, war against Cæsar." And he refrained not from taunts. [32]

Thusnelda gave birth to a son named Thumelicus who grew up in Roman captivity. Tacitus describes him as having an unusual story, which he promises to tell in his later writings, but these writings have never been found. [34]

Arminius' victory against the Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest had a far-reaching effect on the subsequent history of both the ancient Germanic peoples and on the Roman Empire. The Romans made no further concerted efforts to conquer and permanently hold Germania beyond the Rhine and the Agri Decumates. Numerous modern historians have regarded Arminius' victory as "Rome's greatest defeat" [2] and one of the most decisive battles in history. [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [17]

Rome Edit

In the accounts of his Roman enemies, Arminius is highly regarded for his military leadership and as a defender of the liberty of his people. Based on these records, the story of Arminius was revived in the 16th century with the recovery of the histories of Tacitus, who wrote in his Annales II, 88:

Arminius, without doubt Germania's liberator, who challenged the Roman people not in its beginnings like other kings and leaders, but in the peak of its empire in battles with changing success, undefeated in the war. [36]

Arminius was not the only reason for Rome's change of policy towards Germania. Politics also played a factor emperors found they could rarely trust a large army to a potential rival, though Augustus had enough loyal family members to wage his wars. Also, Augustus, in his 40-year reign, had annexed many territories still at the beginning of the process of Romanization. Tiberius, who succeeded Augustus in AD 14, decided that Germania was a far less developed land, possessing few villages and only a small food surplus, and therefore was not currently important to Rome. Conquering Germania would require a commitment too burdensome for the imperial finances and an excessive expenditure of military force.

Modern scholars have pointed out that the Rhine was a more practical boundary for the Roman Empire than any other river in Germania. Armies on the Rhine could be supplied from the Mediterranean Sea via the Rhône, Saône, and Mosel, with only a brief area of portage. Armies on the Elbe, however, would had to have been supplied by extensive overland routes or by ships travelling the hazardous Atlantic. Economically, the Rhine already had towns and sizable villages at the time of the Gallic conquest. The Rhine was significantly more accessible from Rome and better equipped to supply sizable garrisons than the regions beyond. [37]

Rome chose no longer to rule directly in Germania east of the Rhine and north of the Danube, instead preferring to exert indirect influence by appointing client kings, which was cheaper than military campaigns. Italicus, nephew of Arminius, was appointed king of the Cherusci Vangio and Sido became vassal princes of the powerful Suebi, etc. [38] When indirect methods proved insufficient to control the Germanic tribes beyond the Rhine, Roman emperors occasionally led devastating punitive campaigns deep into Germania. One of them, led by the Roman emperor Maximinus Thrax, resulted in a Roman victory in AD 235 at the Battle at the Harzhorn Hill, [39] located in the modern German state of Lower Saxony, east of the Weser river, between the towns of Kalefeld and Bad Gandersheim.

Old Germanic sagas Edit

In the early 19th century, attempts were made to show that the story of Arminius and his victory may have lived on in the Old Norse sagas, [40] in the form of the dragon slayer Sigurd of the Völsunga saga and the Nibelungenlied. An Icelandic account [41] [42] states that Sigurd "slew the dragon" in the Gnitaheidr—today the suburb Knetterheide of the city of Bad Salzuflen, located at a strategic site on the Werre river which could very well have been the point of departure of Varus' legions on their way to their doom in the Teutoburg Forest. One of the foremost Scandinavian scholars of the 19th century, Guðbrandur Vigfússon, [43] identified Sigurd as Arminius. This educated guess was also picked up by Otto Höfler, who was a prominent Nazi National Socialist academic during World War II. [44]

German nationalism Edit

During the unification of Germany in the 19th century, Arminius was hailed as a symbol of German unity and freedom. [9] In Germany, the name Arminius was interpreted as reflecting the name Hermann by Martin Luther, who saw Arminius as a symbol of the German people and their fight against Rome. [45] Hermann der Cheruskerfürst became an emblem of the revival of German nationalism fueled by the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th century, such as in Caspar David Friedrich's 1812 painting The Tombs of the Old Heroes. [46]

In 1808, Heinrich von Kleist wrote the play Die Hermannsschlacht, [47] but with Napoleon's victory at Wagram it remained in manuscript, being published in 1821 and not staged until 1860. The play has been revived repeatedly at moments propitious for raw expressions of National Romanticism and was especially popular during the Third Reich. [48]

In 1838, construction was started on a massive statue of Arminius, known as the Hermannsdenkmal, on a hill near Detmold in the Teutoburg Forest it was finally completed and dedicated during the early years of the Second German Empire in the wake of the German victory over France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871. The monument has been a major tourist attraction ever since, as has the Hermann Heights Monument, a similar statue erected in New Ulm, Minnesota in the United States in 1897. The Hermann Heights monument was erected by the Sons of Hermann, a fraternal organization formed by German Americans in New York City in 1840 that flourished during the 19th century in American cities with large populations of German origin. Hermann, Missouri, a town on the Missouri River founded in the 1830s and incorporated in 1845, was also named for Arminius.

Following the rise of Nazi Germany, fueled by aggressive German nationalism, and its subsequent defeat in World War II, Arminius became a lesser-known figure among West Germans and many schools shied away from teaching his story in any detail due to its previous association with nationalism. [9] There was, however, a somewhat different perception in East Germany. In East Germany, Arminius, based on a Marxist reading of history, came to be seen as a revolutionary figure of sorts, leading German tribes in a fight against the Roman slaveholder society (Sklavenhaltergesellschaft). In the context of the Cold War, Arminius was interpreted as symbolic of socialism, with Rome being a symbol of the capitalist United States as an oppressive empire. [49]

The 2,000-year anniversary of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, in 2009, was celebrated with restraint in Germany, avoiding "flag-waving festivals" and other gestures that might be interpreted as nationalism. [9] According to Der Spiegel: "The old nationalism has been replaced by an easy-going patriotism that mainly manifests itself at sporting events like the soccer World Cup." [9] The German Bundesliga football club DSC Arminia Bielefeld is named after Arminius. The 2,000-year anniversary of the battle was also celebrated in New Ulm, Minnesota without restraint. There were mock battles between Romans and club-wielding barbarians and also a lecture series in an auditorium. [50]

The Fall Of Varus, Betrayed By His Allies – The Battle Of The Teutoburg Forest, Rome’s Greatest Defeat

Varus was crushed. His feet and hands and mind were numb with the freezing rain. His legions, so splendid and untouchable only days before, were in tatters. The broken remnants of his glorious army were gathered around him with the great hill at their back, facing a crude wall of raw earth.

He had given the order to storm the wall and had sent his most hardened soldiers in the van of the attempt. There was no hope for any of them he knew, if these men could not break through.

It was the third day since the whistle and thud of the enemy’s javelins had signalled the beginning of the ambush. The rain had been falling then, too, and Varus had been riding in the center of his great host, surrounded by his staff. The host was many thousands strong, and he had suspected no danger. His reputation preceded him, he knew. The name of Varus was feared in this land.

The night before the march Varus’ trusted advisor and humble vassal, a Germanic noble named Arminius, had warned him of a local uprising to the north-west of his position. Varus had made his decision quickly. He was to move his men and their many hangers-on to their winter quarters without delay, and the crushing of a local rebellion would be no bad thing for an army which would shortly be faced with months of inactivity.

Give them some booty to play with, some stories to tell. Many of his men were inexperienced, and a short, sharp fight before their rest would do them no harm. Arminius was a good and loyal man, at least as much as was possible considering his barbarian heritage. He had been educated in Rome, and spoke well, dressed well and observed all the proper forms. Arminius knew the surrounding countryside well and had no difficulty directing Varus in the path the army should take.

There was no time to lose, Arminius had declared, and the road through the great forest would bring Varus to his goal quickly, and without taking him too much out of his way. He had given the orders for an early march.

Varus would have been pleased to retire to bed, but he was interrupted by another German, and older man, the father of Arminius’ wife. There was no love lost between these two Varus knew, but the old man had gone too far this time. He claimed that Arminius would betray Varus during the march, that Varus would be hemmed in a narrow place, and that the well-spoken, Roman-educated Arminius had secretly raised an army to defy the rule of the Emperor in Rome.

Modern statue of Varus – By Fewskulchor – CC BY-SA 3.0 de

The very thought of an alliance of the subjugated Germanic tribes was preposterous. Arminius was a trusted and loyal subject of Rome, and the fear of Varus’ name went before him. It was true that now and then a small rebellion, like the one he would crush tomorrow, would arise, but the thought of an alliance which could challenge the might of three legions under the command of General Quinctillius Varus… there was no merit in the suggestion. Varus had the man removed, and went to his rest.

The conversation floated through his mind as he peered through the gloom at the last ditch attempt by his heavy infantry to take the wall. It was hard to see what was going on, but over the hiss of the rain he could hear the grunts of men and the thud and crack of impact. He was soaked through and heavy, layers of wet leather and sodden wool topped with iron mail. He crouched and crept forward toward the fighting, and his small unit of veterans moved with him.

Even here, among the utter ruin of his vanity, and facing total defeat, he was filled with a grim pride. Three days they had held, and in the most disadvantageous circumstances imaginable. The Barbarians had thrown a seemingly endless number of warriors at his army, and they had died, only to be replaced by yet more. Bearded, painted, stinking and roaring, they seemed to Varus more beasts than men. By sheer weight of numbers Varus’ forces had been whittled down, and the German morale maintained only by the Legion’s disorganised position.

Even now, at the last desperate gasp, the discipline of the heavy infantry was efficient and brutal, wonderful to behold.

This was what Rome was. The training, the efficiency – Varus gloried in it. Watching, he felt that it was beautiful in its way. His legionaries had buried the wall in the corpses of their enemies. They could not take the barrier, and as he watched their attack turned into a tight defense. A fresh wave of warriors sprang over the wall with a yell, accompanied by a barrage of rocks and javelins. The Roman infantry closed ranks and took a step back.

The end was near. Behind him, there was a scream of horses. Three men had peeled off from their unit and galloped madly away, back toward the road. At the same moment, the defense at the wall disintegrated and was overrun. Varus had held the remainder of his forces back from the wall, and they clustered together, a waterlogged and exhausted band numbering less that three hundred on foot, and less than a hundred were mounted.

Kalkriese Hill, the suspected site of the battle. By Corradox – CC BY-SA 3.0

The dawn began to break, and the rain lessened at last. Through the gap where the last fight had taken place came the enemy, pouring like a river through a broken dam. Their cavalry thundered onto the open ground, crashing into the remaining foot soldiers. A small group pursued those who had fled, meeting them with a rattle of spears some way off.

As the pale dawn broke, Varus beheld the totality of his defeat. Countless warriors were filling up the field around him, between the hill and the forest. Varus turned to the man beside him. There were only a few moments left.

Roman Imperial Facemask found at the suspected site of the battle. By Einsamer Schütze – CC BY-SA 3.0

They met each other’s eyes and saluted smartly, then turned to face the approaching tide. And there he was: the well-spoken, well-educated vassal, Arminius, walking forward at the head of his victorious army. He saw Varus, and his smile was dreadful to behold. He pointed Varus out to the men around him, and with a yell began to charge toward him. Varus took a breath and made his decision. There was no other escape left. He lifted his short-bladed sword, found the soft spot below his ribs and plunged the blade upward.

This battle cost Rome three entire legions and came to be known in Rome as the Varian disaster. It signaled a turning point in the story of Rome’s conquest of Ancient Germany – though many more battles were fought in Germania the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest spelled the end of Roman expansion into northern Europe.

Disaster at Teutoburg Forest – The Worst Defeat Of the Roman Armies, Ever!

The Battle of Teutoburg Forest was one of the worst defeats suffered by the Roman army in its entire existence not in terms of men lost, though many were, but in terms of setting limits to Roman expansion and dispelling the reputation of the power of the Roman army. The Romans were at the height of imperialism and had gained a large amount of territory under Emperor Augustus. Some of these territories were hard won but the Romans usually persevered in a territory until it was conquered until they met disaster in the Teutoburg Forest.

The Teutoburg forest in Germany is a mountainous region covered by a dense forest located just southwest of modern Hanover. The German tribes who lived in the area were quite mobile and often times did not stay long enough in any one place to cultivate crops and were able to load their possessions on wagons and go very quickly. Despite the nomadic lifestyle the area around Teutoburg held a large population of many different tribes most of whom were hostile to Rome.

Much of the area of Germany had been pacified a few years before by Tiberius who would later be the successor to Augustus. Tiberius had made a lot of progress in the area essentially conquering tribes and reconquering them if they revolted. Tiberius fought it Germany until 6 CE when he was called to end a revolt in Illyria and Quintilius Varus took his place in Germany and was known for a degree of cruelty and treating subjected nations as slaves of the empire. Varus was a confident man and would prove to be a very trusting man as well.

Varus initially had a great sense of security as he immediately went into German territory and spread out his legions in order to bring Roman law to where it was needed. The sense of security was likely because the tribes in the area had suffered many defeats in living memory and knew that they likely could not successfully revolt, though the hatred was still there. The other factor giving Varus a sense of power and security was his close advisor Arminius who was from this area but had been raised in Rome as a hostage. Once Arminius was in Germany with Varus he began to contact German tribes to set up an attack.

While heading back to the winter fort near the safer Rhine River, Varus was told of rebellion to the East, deeper in German territory. Arminius had advised Varus of this uprising which was likely fabricated and Arminius also proposed a quick route to get to the rebelling area which conveniently led through areas of dense forests and multiple valleys. Varus took three legions along with an equal amount of auxiliaries with an estimated total around 30-35,000 soldiers with a significant number of camp followers.

Statue believed to be of Arminius

Varus marched eastward with his forces however the terrain forced the column to stretch for miles and become disjointed. Varus also neglected to stop to reform the column of march and with the dense forest, rolling hills and increasing fog and rain, the soldiers could hardly see what was going on with any part of the army other than their immediate surroundings. Arminius slipped away into the woods with all the allies who were loyal to him. While Varus and the rest of the legion were realizing that he was gone, Arminius was busy sending multiple contingents of Germans into position along the Roman line of march and sending word to all tribes that a Roman army was primed for destruction.

The Romans were in a very poor position and at their weakest. They have been marching for days in a long, disjointed column. They were likely tired and not in full battle dress. They had been fighting through the thick forest for most of the journey. With the heavy fog and rain turning into a downpour, Arminius attacked.

Teutoburg Forest with a heavy fog similar to what the Romans experience, with heavy rain during the day as well.

The attacking Germans were quite timid at first, after all they were attacking a Roman army and many men had seen defeat at the hands of Romans before. As the Germans continued attacking they realized how weak the Romans were and went in with full force. The Romans suffered greatly but in credit to Roman training, they were able to form a central position and construct a fortified camp as best as they could and wait out the night. Arminius likely had a rotation of skirmishers harassing the camp through the night although the continuing rainstorms likely reduced the effectiveness.

The next day Varus exited the camp and sought to escape to more favorable terrain. Punching through to another forested area the Romans suffered and likely many of the non-combatants perished while being unable to keep pace. Over the course of the day the Roman’s began to lose their most vital equipment, their shields. The constant downpour soaked the already heavy wooden shields and those armed with bows found them to be slackened by the rain. The Germans did not suffer much from this as they had much smaller shields as well as being in home territory with plenty of access to fresh equipment. The attacks continued throughout the day and during the night the Romans constructed a camp and attempted to escape in the early hours of the morning.

Reconstruction of the simple, but effective fortifications setup by Arminius that bottled up the Romans last escape attempt and finally broke the Romans.

Unfortunately for the Romans, Arminius had his men spending the night cutting ditches through roads and felling trees to create only one distinct route the Romans could take. Arminius lined this narrow route with soldiers and had them create an earth wall to allow them both cover and a slight height advantage on the Romans. When Varus marched out of camp he led his forces through the path Arminius set for him and met a dead end at the base of a hill. The Romans were exhausted after several days of marching and fighting all through a continuous storm and were spread between their camp and a dead end of Germans. At this point the Germans rushed towards the Romans with full strength. The German army had grown considerably larger as word had spread of the previous day’s successes and men from miles around came for a chance to plunder.

What happened next was an almost complete breakdown of the Roman army. The second in command, cavalry commander Vala Numonius fled with much of the cavalry but was killed soon after. The Romans made many attempts to scale the earthen wall but either failed or were quickly overcome upon reaching the other side. The Roman command collapsed when Varus and many other officers decided to take their own lives. Many of the men lost complete control and cast away their weapons to be killed by whoever arrived first. Small groups tried to flee in every direction but most were killed or captured quickly. Losses for the Germans are hard to pinpoint but estimates are around 1,000. The Romans lost around 20,000 men with many being enslaved. A little over 1,000 Romans, led by camp prefect Caedicius, were able to escape.

mask of a fallen Roman, possibly a centurion.

When news reached Rome Augustus took it badly. Though it may well be an exaggeration, Suetonius says Augustus let his hair grow out and went unshaven and periodically shouted “Varus, give me back my legions” while beating his head on a door. While this certainly seems like an exaggeration Augustus still took the news hard and had the anniversary become a day of mourning.

After the initial shock of the defeat wore off, Augustus’ successor Tiberius had one of his best generals, Claudius Germanicus, invade Germany in 14 CE Germanicus had great success in Germany and even sprung an ambush with heavy losses incurred by the Germans. From 14-16 CE Germanicus fought many successful battles against the Germans. Germanicus would later find

Statue of Arminius (Hermann in German) near the site of the battle in Germany

the site of the Varian disaster and discover skulls pinned to trees and heaps of bones. He was able to recover two of the lost legion eagles with the third being recovered some time after. Arminius was a hero after the battle and today remains a proud symbol of Germany but he had a hard fall from grace as he suffered several defeats as the Romans sought retribution. he faced anger from multiple tribes but was ultimately murdered by members of his own tribe who felt he had too much power.

It is easy to see how powerful this battle was beyond just the amount of men lost. Losing a legionary eagle was an utter disgrace even in terrible defeats every effort was made to save the eagle but in this case three eagles were captured. It is a testament to the staying power of the Germans that they were able to fend off the Romans when they were arguably at their most powerful. Great military leaders such as Augustus, Tiberius and Germanicus were all accomplished conquerors but despite winning multiple battles against the Germans they still were not able to effectively subdue them.

Teutoburg Forest (5)

Battle in the Teutoburg Forest (Latin Saltus Teutoburgiensis): the defeat of the Roman commander Publius Quintilius Varus against the Germanic tribesmen of the Cheruscian leader Arminius in 9 CE. In this battle, three legions (XVII, XVIII, XIX) were annihilated.

The battle

The Teutoburg Forest is one of the few ancient battlefields that has been excavated. Of course, several siege walls and fortifications have been discovered (e.g., at Nineveh, Paphos, Numantia, Alesia, Velsen, Masada), but Kalkriese is one of the few places where archaeologists have discovered the site of an open battle. This has greatly increased our understanding of the massacre in the Teutoburg Forest. Nevertheless, the written sources are still important, not in the least because the interpretation of many archaeological finds ultimately rests upon texts.

Map of Rome's possessions across the Rhine

As we have already seen, we have four sources. Tacitus describes the battlefield, but not the battle itself Florus excerpts an older source but is not of great value Velleius Paterculus describes the campaign that resulted in the disaster and gives several details, but does not tell much about the battle itself. Cassius Dio is the only one that offers an overview of the battle, and we will use him as our guide through the battle, noting where his story is confirmed or falsified by other authors or the archaeological record.


To start with, we should notice that Florus, Cassius Dio and Paterculus agree that Germania had already been conquered by Drusus, and that the Romans, at a later stage, tried to change the conquered territories into a real province. Paterculus describes the campaigns in which Tiberius traversed through the country. His successor as governor of Germania, Publius Quinctilius Varus, imposed regular taxes, as is recorded by the same three authors. Although the archaeological record cannot confirm this, it does not contradict it either, and - more importantly - does corroborate that the Romans had settled their legions on the east bank of the Rhine (e.g. at Haltern).

Florus, Cassius Dio and Paterculus suggest that the taxes provoked resistance among a population that was at first willing to accept Roman rule. They agree that Varus did not see the gathering storm, and Dio adds that the governor of Germania sent Roman troops to various places, instead of concentrating them on one place:

Varus did not keep his legions together, as was proper in a hostile country, but distributed many of the soldiers to helpless communities, which asked for them for the alleged purpose of guarding various points, arresting robbers, or escorting provision trains. note [Cassius Dio, Roman History, 56.19.1 tr. Earnest Cary.]

There is a problem here. Dio says that the legions were no longer kept together, whereas Paterculus states that three of them were destroyed together. The likely solution is that Varus, on hearing the first news about the revolt of a far-away tribe, regrouped his army. He was not intending to march to the north with a weak force, which shows that he was a more capable general than is sometimes assumed.


All sources agree that the Germanic leader was Arminius, a member of the Cheruscan tribe and until then a loyal supporter of Rome, honored with the equestrian rank. Dio and Paterculus add that Arminius' father Segimer also played a role. The rebels (or freedom fighters, depending on one's perspective) must have made their preparation during the late summer.

Not all Germanic leaders agreed with Arminius' policy. All authors state that his plan was betrayed to Varus. Dio does not mention the name of the traitor, but Paterculus, Tacitus and Florus agree that it was Segestes. What happened next is not clear. According to Paterculus and Dio, Varus refused to listen, and instead rebuked the man that could have saved him. On the other hand, Florus says that Varus summoned Arminius to appear before his tribunal. Perhaps we can ignore this, because Paterculus and Dio are usually better informed than Florus, who is especially trying to stress Varus' overconfidence.

Varus Sets Out

Dio does not say which tribe revolted, but we can make an educated guess. In 41, one of the Roman eagle standards was recovered among the Chauci, a tribe living on the shores of the North Sea. Accepting that Varus' headquarters were at "the furthest frontier of the Bructeri" (which is more or less implied by Tacitus, who tells that later, the Roman commander Germanicus marched in the footsteps of Varus), Varus must indeed have been marching to the northwest when he was ambushed at Kalkriese. A rebellion of the Chauci is certainly possible, although by no means proven.

Mountains, ravines, trees: this sounds very spectacular, but we can ignore this information. As we have already noticed, like every ancient author, Dio was obsessed with the edges of the earth, where an unfriendly environment created the most ferocious and savage barbarians. Mentioning forests was simply a way of saying that the Roman legions were challenged by a formidable enemy. It comes as no surprise that part of the country near Kalkriese was in fact under cultivation.

On the other hand, there is no reason to doubt that the Romans were building roads and bridging places before the enemy assailed them. After all, they were making a real province of Germania and the construction of a road through the bogs on the planes of northern Germania would have been necessary anyhow. We can imagine that Varus' men were moving from, say, modern Minden (where Roman objects were excavated near Barkhausen) to the west, where they wanted to reach the river Hase. Following its course, they would reach the Ems - where his army could receive supplies from the fleet - and the Chauci. The area between Minden and Kalkriese was marshy, so it is certainly possible that the Romans needed to bridge places, cut trees, and build roads (pontes longi).

Day One

One of the traces of Dio's source is a remark that something happened "on the fourth day". He does not indicate the first day, but counting backwards, it must have been the day on which Arminius and his fellow-conspirators left the main force.

We already noticed that the Germanic leaders had asked Varus for Roman soldiers to assist them with all kinds of small tasks. These people were the first to discover that the attitude of the Germanic tribes had changed. Maybe the destruction of their forts and guard posts is behind Florus' strange remark that Varus' camp was sized. No other author summarizes the battle in this way and the finds at the Kalkriese seem to contradict it. Perhaps, however, Florus misunderstood a remark about the capture of guard posts.

Unaware of these events, the Roman main force proceeded to the west, still building a road, until it reached a brook called Hunte. Near modern Bohmte, the soldiers must have built the camp that is mentioned by Tacitus:

Varus' first camp with its wide circumference and the measurements of its central space clearly indicated the handiwork of three legions. note [Tacitus, Annals, 1.61.2 tr. A.J. Church & W.J. Brodribb.]

Arminius could not attack this fortress. The Roman heavy infantry was stronger than the Germanic warriors, which were equipped with javelins, spears and shields. Perhaps only about a third used a sword. Legionaries, on the other hand, wore armor and helmets, and were protected by larger and better shields. The Romans also had javelins, and every single one of them carried a sword. These professional soldiers could only be defeated if they were ambushed, and there is no reason to doubt what our sources say: that Varus trusted Arminius completely and the Romans were not on their guard. Dio shows how unprepared they proceeded on the second day:

They had with them many wagons and many beasts of burden as in time of peace moreover, not a few women and children and a large retinue of servants were following them - one more reason for their advancing in scattered groups. note [Cassius Dio, Roman History, 56.20.2.]

Day Two

The army must have proceeded to the Kalkriese narrows at a leisurely pace. Dio says that it was raining. Rainfall belongs to the standard-clichés about the edges of the earth, so we should be careful, but it may be true.

The soldiers now had to proceed through the narrows between the great bog in the north and the hill in the south. After they had passed the saltus, the army would move to the northwest and continue along the Hase to the Chauci.

Distribution of Roman finds between the great bog and the hill

Arminius' men had fortified the hill with the wall that has been excavated. As we have already seen, the distribution of the finds suggests that the Roman army was cut in two, when the head of the column was already marching to the northwest and the Hase.

/> Kalkriese: reconstruction of the narrow corridor between bog and hill At first they hurled their volleys from a distance then, as no one defended himself and many were wounded, they approached closer to them. For the Romans were not proceeding in any regular order, but were mixed in helter-skelter with the wagons and the unarmed, and so, being unable to form readily anywhere in a body, and being fewer at every point than their assailants, they suffered greatly and could offer no resistance at all. note [Cassius Dio, Roman History, 56.20.4-5.]

Although it is impossible to reconstruct the exact course of the attack, we can perhaps increase our understanding a bit by taking into account the typical marching order of a Roman army, as it is described by Flavius Josephus. note [Flavius Josephus, Jewish War 3.116-126.]

  1. Archers and auxiliaries, acting as scouts.
  2. The advance-guard: one legion (about 5000 men), supported by 120 horsemen.
  3. Pioneers, who were to build a camp at the end of the day and improve the road.
  4. The first part of the train: the baggage of the general and the staff officers.
  5. The general and his bodyguard.
  6. The cavalry of the other two legions (240 horsemen).
  7. The second part of the train: mules with the artillery.
  8. The staff officers and the army standards ('eagles').
  9. The main force: two legions (about 10,000 men).
  10. The third part of the train: the baggage of the soldiers.
  11. The rear guard: mixed troops.

The obvious point to strike is #5, the general. Although Varus was escorted by bodyguards and followed by 240 horsemen, there were no other combatants in his neighborhood. If Arminius' men would succeed, they had cut the enemy army in two and destroyed the center of command. This would be a great advantage to them, and a blow to the Roman morale, especially when the eagles were captured. While Arminius' men charged at Varus, others would shower the two legions in the rear with arrows and javelins. The archaeological finds at Kalkriese do not contradict this reconstruction of the first attack, but we have written evidence (Dio and Tacitus) that Varus did not die on the first day of the battle.

The next phase - again: this reconstruction is hypothetical - would be a regrouping of the Roman army. Although the first attack must have been a great surprise, these soldiers were professionals, who were not defeated at the first blow, not even when they were fighting on difficult ground. The first legion would return from the northwest and try to join forces with the (remains of the) other two. Alternatively, the soldiers of the first legion, believing that they were the only survivors, continued to the northwest, and disappeared in the bogs.

The surviving Roman soldiers had to maneuver on a strip of land of only 220 meters wide, but the northern part was out of reach of the Germanic spears. The legionaries now must have understood that they could no longer proceed to the northwest, but had to take the easier road to the southwest, to Haltern on the Lippe and Xanten on the Rhine.

As it turned out, they were not able to destroy the Germanic position on the slope of the Kalkriese hill. The archaeological record suggests that there were fights at the wall, and the Romans were repulsed. The legionaries had to continue along the wall, and the Germanic warriors could easily kill many of them. We have already seen, the distribution of finds suggests that after the Roman army had been cut in two, the southern group was either annihilated to the west of the Kalkriese narrows, or recuperated and proceeded without archaeologically traceable losses to the southwest, in the direction of the Lippe. There is evidence that there were survivors who knew about fights in the Lippe valley.

On September 9, 9 A.D., Germanic tribes under the leadership of Arminius dealt an army of 3 Roman Legions and their auxiliaries a crushing and total defeat at Teutoburg Forest in what is now Germany. Called a “turning point in world history,” “Rome’s greatest defeat,” and “one of the most decisive battles recorded in military history,” the Battle of Teutoburg Forest ensured that the Romans would never go East of the Rhine River and the Germanic tribes in the East would not be subjugated by Rome.

Digging Deeper

The Romans were led by Publius Quinctilius Varus, a military commander and politician of some renown and one who had previously enjoyed some successes. Varus was the current Governor of Germania, and was also a brutal excuse for a Roman, having crucified 2000 Jewish rebels en masse in Jerusalem in 4 A.D., typical of his harsh rule in Judea, Africa, and Syria (other places where he served as Governor).

The leader of the Germanic tribes, Arminius, was trained militarily by the Romans and was the commander of a Roman auxiliary unit. In fact, Varus had been the mentor of Arminius, and thus believed Arminius when Arminius gave Varus false information about a revolt in Germany. Aminius, leading an unknown number of Germanic tribesmen, perhaps anywhere from 12,000 to 32,000, set an ambush for the 20,000 to 36,000 Romans.

The battle was a slaughter, and Varus took his own life when he saw that all was lost and capture was inevitable. Arminius cut off the head of Varus and sent it to King Marbod in Bohemia as a gift in order to encourage an alliance of King Marbod’s people with the forces of Arminius. Marbod declined the alliance, and sent the head of Varus to Rome. As many as 20,000 Romans were killed outright, with most of the rest of them taken prisoner and either ransomed or enslaved. Roman officers were sacrificed, often boiled in pots or burned alive. Many Romans, especially officers, committed suicide by falling on their swords to avoid torture. Amazingly, about 40 years after the battle the Roman Army operating in Germania found and freed a few of the Roman soldiers that had been taken prisoner at Teutoburg Forest, returning those men to Rome where they became the objects of sympathy.

Given the catastrophic news, Emperor Augustus of Rome is said to have beaten his head against a wall and wailed, “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my Legions!” Historians in Rome referred to the battle as “The Varian Disaster.”

The Romans were beaten at Teutoburg Forest through a combination of trickery and the fact that Arminius and many of his fighters had been trained and equipped by the Romans. Some Germans had even fought the battle in Roman uniforms and armor, with Roman weapons. Some Roman arrogance may have also played into the hands of Arminius as well, with Varus overconfident of beating the “barbarians.” Varus not only paid for his miscalculations with his life, but also with his ruined reputation and disruption of his family’s place in Roman society.

Question for students (and subscribers): Was the Battle of Teutoburg Forest the worst Roman defeat? If not, please tell us which defeat you believe was more thorough or more catastrophic. Also, please share any insights you have into this historically important battle in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

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