During the reign of Emperor Augustus, in the deep, dark forests across the Rhine, three Roman legions marched in order, seeking to resolve the issue of pacifying the disparate but problematic Germanic tribes resisting Roman rule.
With their expertise and superior military, the Romans were confident they would achieve an easy victory, expand the Roman sphere of influence, and put an end to the rebelliousness of the Germanic tribes in the area. But the trees of the forest hid a power much greater than they had anticipated. What happened that Autumn day in 9 CE would send shockwaves all the way back to Rome. This was the Battle of Teutoburg Forest.
Background to the Battle of Teutoburg Forest
Almost twenty years before the bloody confrontation in the Teutoburg Forest between the Germanic tribes and the Romans, a young boy named Arminius (his Germanic name is unknown, but “Arminius” gave rise to the name “Hermann”), son of the Cherusci chief Segimer, was given up as tribute to the Romans in a bid to secure peace between the two peoples. He was taken back to Rome, given a Roman education, and trained in the military arts. Arminius’ fate was the result of the Romans expanding their power into Germanic territory and exacting defeat upon the locals. This seemingly benign action would end up having major consequences.
In 6 CE, a massive army of 13 legions was sent against the Marcomanni, a federation of German tribes. The result was the acquisition of territory from the Rhine to the Elbe. The new province of Germania Inferior was put under the administration of Publius Quinctilius Varus, a noble from a patrician family with a history of administrative endeavors. As expected, the new province was unruly, and it would take time to quell local desires for insurrection. Soon after his appointment, Varus would have far fewer legions with which to stamp Roman authority, as the majority of the Roman army was sent to the Balkans to quell a rebellion there. Directly under the control of Varus were Legions XVII Classica, XVIII Lybica, and XIX. Another two legions in the province were under the control of Varus’ nephew, a senator named Lucius Nonius Asprenas.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
The province itself was full of forests (including Teutoburg Forest) and was thus an extremely unfavorable place for Roman legionaries to operate. They were subject to poor visibility and offered plenty of hiding places for brigands and enemies of the Roman Empire.
Varus ruled through fear and was especially known for his liberal use of crucifixion. At this point, Arminius returned to his homeland, now under Roman control. He became a trusted advisor to Varus, but in secret, he met with the German chiefs, serving as the impetus for an alliance between several Germanic tribes. An alliance was an unnatural state of affairs for the disparate tribes, but the treatment meted out by the Romans was a major driving force in creating a unified front among the Germanic people.
While returning from his Summer camping grounds by the Weser River and heading towards the Wintering stations on the Rhine, Arminius informed Varus of a local rebellion that required immediate action. These reports, of course, were falsified by Arminius, but as he was a trusted advisor, Varus hardly thought to question the report’s validity. This was despite the fact that Varus had been warned by a Cheruscan nobleman, Segestes, who was Arminius’ unwilling father-in-law. Varus dismissed the warning.
Varus decided to deal with the supposed rebellion in a prompt fashion and led his three legions through the Teutoburg Forest, which was unfamiliar territory. Arminius acted as a guide, and as soon as he had the chance, he informed Varus that he would leave the column to seek out local support for the Roman army. Far from the eyes of the Romans, Arminius rejoined his Germanic kinsmen and prepared to strike. He had led the Romans into the perfect ambush.
The German Tribes Strike!
A storm was brewing. Metaphorically and literally. Sources recount the weather turned foul, and thunder boomed across the sky. This was sure to be seen as a good portent for the Germanic people who believed that Donner (the German name for Thor) was on their side. A torrential downpour turned the ground to mud.
The Romans were stretched perilously thin, as the track was narrow. Over the course of roughly several miles, marched Legio XVII, Legio XVIII, and Legio XIX along with six cohorts (480 men each) of native auxiliaries and three squadrons of cavalry. In total, the Roman army was approximately 20,000 men, excluding their retainers and camp followers who were with them. They were marching out of combat formation, and Varus had not seen fit to send scouting parties ahead in the Teutoburg Forest. This was a critical error.
Arminius’ army, by contrast, consisted of about 15,000 men, and although inferior in number, they had the high ground, the element of surprise, and knowledge of the terrain. In addition to this, Arminius, having grown up in the Roman military, knew exactly how the Romans would respond and how to counter their maneuvers.
They surrounded the Romans and began the battle. All along the Roman line, legionaries were subjected to barrages of javelins while some tribesmen took advantage of the element of surprise and barreled down into the unprepared Roman line, engaging their adversaries in melee combat before retreating up the Kalkriese slope that ran along the battlefield. Behind the slope, the tribesmen had prepared fortifications to repel any attempt of a counterattack. These prepared fortifications worked well, and Roman counterattacks up the Kalkriese were easily dealt with.
In the center of the Roman column, the defense collapsed, and the column was split in two, allowing the Germanic tribes to roll up the inner flanks of each section. Nevertheless, the Roman column kept moving, realizing that their only chance of surviving was to escape out of the narrow defile. Those who tried to escape northwards found themselves in an impenetrable swamp where they drowned or were cut down.
The Battle of Teutoburg Forest was already an absolute disaster for the Romans, and it would get even worse.
The Next Day
Sections of Varus’ army managed to escape westwards, where the Teutoburg Forest gave way to more open terrain, and they force marched through the night. The path they took, however, had been deviated by the Germanic forces and led the Romans directly into a prepared embankment and into another ambush. Upon reaching another nearby wood, the tribesmen struck again. This time, some Germanic tribes not part of Arminius’ original alliance joined the cause. The Romans attempted maneuvers that were dogged by confusion, and their own cavalry collided with their infantry, splitting formations and creating opportunities for the tribesmen to attack. Varus’ second-in-command tried to flee on horseback, but he was overtaken and cut down by the Germanic cavalry.
The remnants of the Roman army tried to storm the embankment to dislodge the Germanic warriors, but it was to no avail. The legionaries’ cohesion had completely disintegrated, and there was nowhere to run. Varus and many of his officers fell on their swords, humiliated and in complete shock at what had just happened to three full-strength legions.
The Aftermath of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest
For the Germans in the Teutoburg forest, casualties were light. For the Romans, however, only a handful escaped the massacre. Between 16,000 and 20,000 Romans were killed, and the survivors were sacrificed to the gods or enslaved. Many corpses were put on display, nailed to the trees.
In the following weeks, Arminius and his army made a clean sweep of the province, clearing out all the settlements east of the Rhine. The arrival of another Roman army prevented Arminius from crossing the Rhine and invading Gaul.
Meanwhile, in Rome, upon hearing of what had happened in the Teutoburg Forest, Emperor Augustus stood in his palace, butted his head against the wall, and proclaimed, “Quinctili Vare, legiones redde!” — “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!”
The three legions were never reformed, and the legion numbers XVII, XVIII, and XIX were never used again.
However, the Battle of Teutoburg Forest was only one battle, and the war continued in the following years. The German tribes and the Romans would fight a bitter struggle with each other for years to come. The Romans would ultimately achieve victory, defeating Arminius in the field and thus breaking up the German alliance. They even recovered two of the Aquilae – the eagle standards of each legion – and captured Arminius’ wife, Thusnelda.
Eventually, however, the Romans would abandon the province. The maintenance of such an unruly and unprofitable land was a liability to the Empire, so the Romans decided to focus their attention elsewhere.
The Battle of Teutoburg Forest was hugely significant in that, with one fell swoop, it put an end to an era of Roman expansion. It also served to curb Roman overconfidence as they realized they could be so completely defeated by barbarians. It was one of Rome’s worst defeats. In modern times, the event serves as a lesson in hubris.
In recent years, it was turned into a German-produced Netflix series called Barbarians or Barbaren in German. The dialogue of the series is all in German and Latin.
The events in the Teutoburg Forest are, however, treated with great care by the German media, as well as the German authorities. Given the results of German nationalism during the 20th century, this is understandable.