The Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD was one of the worst military defeats of Roman times and had a long-lasting and far-reaching influence on the fledging Empire. Today, it is often called “the beginning of German history” and is recognised as one of the most glorious examples of German unification.
For Julius Caesar, the Rhine River was an important strategic frontier. His numerous incursions into Gaul across the Rhine provoked a series of conflicts in northwest Germany and encouraged the Roman desire to civilise the region.
The Romans wanted to colonise and civilise the entire region, perhaps to wipe out any risk of German invasions into Roman territory. The Fifth Legion Alaudae – under Marcus Lollius, the governor of Gallia Belgica – was defeated by the Sugambri, a particularly violent tribe, in 17 BC. Following this, the armies of Germanica Inferior and Germanica Superior were stationed along the Rhine to defend the Roman border.
In 15 BC, Emperor Augustus sent his adopted son, Nero Claudius Drusus, to Germanica with the intention of subjugating it. Said to have had seven legions at his command, Drusus built up the frontier with fifty army headquarters from 14 BC onwards. Sensing that they were in danger, the Sugambri tribe attempted to strike the Roman Empire preemptively, but were defeated by Druses, who also went on to force the Frisians and Chauci into surrender.
He managed to conquer much of Germanica and led the first major Roman actions against the region during his career, but fell from his horse when returning from the River Elbe and died in 9 BC.
Tiberius, whom Pliny the Elder called “the gloomiest of men”, was Drusus’ brother and replaced him as governor of Germanica. He is well-known for laying the foundations of the Northern Front.
However, in 6 AD, a huge revolt in Pannonia – “Bellum Batonianum” – broke out among Native Illyrians who had been recruited into Roman auxiliary ranks. Tiberius was forced to make major military action and significantly large Roman armies campaigned in the Balkans until 9 AD, when the fighting finally ended.
Whilst Tiberius was away fighting in Illyrica, a new governor of Germanica was instituted – Publius Quinctilius Varus. During his control of the region (which was hoped to soon be a Roman province), Varus apparently stationed legions on the East bank of the Rhine. Although the Germans clearly weren’t happy with the Romans invading their territory and pillaging their land, they still conducted trade of gold, dogs and cattle, among other goods, with them.
In addition, the high taxes imposed by Publius Quinctilius Varus also provoked anger among the Germanic tribes. Varus was most likely under pressure from Emperor Augustus to subjugate Germanica by whatever means. According to estimates, Varus probably had seven legions under his command.
Although the Germans were enraged by their Roman oppressors, they were unable to do anything substantial or decisive about their situation, due to tribal rivalry and the difficulties in forming an alliance.
It was the Germanic chieftain of the Cherusci tribe, Arminius (most likely a Latin translation of “Hermann”), who managed to unite the clans and set a trap to destroy the invaders. Arminius, who had grown up as a hostage in Rome, served in the auxiliary units from 1 to 6 AD and rose to the rank of officer.
Since he had served excellently in the Roman army and had been granted Roman citizenship, Arminius was well-known to Varus. On the other hand, he had an inner understanding of the tactics and workings of the Roman army, and ultimately exploited these at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest.
In 9 AD, Publius was leading an army of 15,000 legionaries of the XVII, XVIII and XIX legions and just as many auxiliaries from a temporary summer base on the Weser River towards the Rhine and more permanent quarters. The Romans, who wanted to return to their bases as quickly as possible, took shorter and faster routes winding through the dense forests and bogs of Germany.
This was how Arminius set and primed his trap. He reported evidence of a Germanic uprising to Varus, who immediately (without much thought) set out to destroy it. Even though he had been warned by a rival tribe member, Segestes – who told Varus that Arminius was a traitor – he still refused to give up the march.
The army included three squadrons of cavalry and six auxiliary cohorts including Germanic allies.
Advancing West to the Kalkrise Narrows, the Romans found themselves trapped between steep hills in the South and marshes in the North. Misty pine and oak forests enclosed their pats, which were only sixty feet wide at some points.
Arminius, who was in control of the Germanic allies and German auxiliary soldiers, informed Varus that he would be moving forwards to organise his forces. What Publius Quinctilius Varus did not realise, however, was that there was a lot more to the story. Arminius was not just organising the Roman-Germans, but was ordering his rebels to construct makeshift fortifications on the banks of the path. He gathered a large army of allied Germans and prepared them being the hills of Teutoburg Forest.
As the Romans headed further into the dense forests, the skies opened up and a heavy rain soaked their clothes. Many soldiers abandoned or removed their armour, which was being weighed down by the rainwater. Furthermore, the rain ruined their bowstrings and ensured that the Roman archers would not be able to fight. Their weapons were effectively useless. All this made the situation worse for them when they were ambushed as they were not prepared to fight without armour.
The ground became very saturated and muddy, and trees kept falling down from the rain and wind. Stretching in a line several kilometres long, the Roman army had been separated into two parts and their leader Varus was only sparsely surrounded by soldiers and bodyguards. He was detached from the main bulk of his army. This made him vulnerable and hindered his ability to command the legionaries effectively when the battle came. There was close to n communication between the cavalry and infantry units at the front and back of the line.
The Romans were quickly becoming fatigued, hungry and cold. Upon Arminius’ command, the Germans released their javelins and arrows and inflicted casualties on the Romans as a prelude to the main battle. The Romans had many wagons and pack animals in their procession. Now that the threat of the rebels had been revealed, they burned or abandoned their wagons so that they could move faster and arrive at a safe Roman base.
Varus made the decision to continue Southwest for sixty miles so that he could reach the nearest Roman base at Haltern, but all his escape routes were immediately blocked off as the Germans surrounded the Romans left, right and centre. The Germans charged down from the hills, catching their oppressors off-guard. What followed was a bloody three-day-long conflict that saw the Romans struggle desperately to form a defensive position and force back the rebels. It was virtually impossible for them to form a battle line or strategic position, in which they were best at fighting, and intense conflict broke out as the Germans launched attack after attack up and down the Roman line.
Realising that his army was doomed and that there was no escape, Varus “fell on his own sword”. Alternatively, he was cut down whilst trying to flee from the battlefield.
The battle was a tragedy. Lasting three days, about thirty thousand men were killed and a third of the entire Roman army was wiped out in the Tuetoburger Forests. The attack on Germania and Lower Saxony was abandoned until 16 AD, and the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth legions never fully recovered or reformed.
Suetonius tells us that Emperor Augustus, who was seventy-two years-old at the time, was mortified at the loss and mourned it for the rest of his life. For several months, according to Suetonius, he neither cut his beard nor his hair. He allegedly cried, “Quintus Varus, give me back my legions!” when the news reached him.
The tragic disaster also changed Roman politics for ever. They decided to defend their borders and make the frontiers safe and secure instead of rapidly expanding and being desperate to subjugate new territories, like before.
Under the leader Germanicus, the Romans returned to Teutoburg Forest a few years later and sought to find revenge for the tragedy at the hands of Varus. The Roman soldiers were ordered to dig graves and bury the dead bodies and bones, many of which may have been their past friends and comrades.
There were bloody, rotting heads nailed to the trees, coins scattered on the ground and empty scabbards, the swords being ripped from them and sent back to Germanic blacksmiths to be crafted into lighter German weapons, which were preferred by the tribes.
In the district of Lippe, there is a statue called the “Hermannsdenkmal” which was the largest statue in the word until the Statue of Liberty. It portrays the victorious Arminius “Hermann”, pointed his sword west towards France (Gaul). The sword is seven meters long and weighs over five hundred kilograms. Kalkriese Hill is one of the only ancient battlefields that has been fully excavated. Among the many finds, there have been Roman coins dating to the reign of Emperor Augustus and a ceremonial mask from a Roman equestrian officer.
Arminius and the Battle of Teutoburg Forest has remained an icon of Germanic patriotism and liberty.
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