Teutoburger Wald

The battle, by Paja Jovanović. (Handelsblatt.com)

By 9 CE, the Roman Empire was booming. Rome’s first Emperor Augustus had consolidated his power and strengthened the legal framework of the government whilst expanding the empire in all directions.The so-called pax romana (Roman Peace) was in full effect: nobody really wanted to mess with Rome’s Legions of well-trained soldiers, so few conflicts broke out anywhere in the Empire under Augustus. The Emperor made every effort to pacify Rome’s “colonies” and buffer states, and was – for the most part – successful. But there was one main outlier: Germania. The region, populated by warlike tribes like the Goths, Vandals and Lombards, had always posed a threat to Roman stability. Tensions between the Germanic tribes and Rome’s Legions would come to a head in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest.

ASAP: A treacherous German trapped the Roman column in the woods and beat them with fear, savagery and mud.

Read on for more details!
A map depicting the rough locations of the various Germanic tribes. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Road to Germania

In the early first millennium, a small series of regional conflicts broke out in the Roman-occupied Balkans and morphed into the Great Illyrian Riot. Huge groups of Balkan natives including the Illyrians and Dalmations rose up and attempted to overthrow their Roman occupiers. The uprising was eventually crushed under the overwhelming force of Legions (with awesome names like XXI Predator), but it came at a great cost to Augustus: nearly 50% of all Roman Legions in the Empire had had to be sent in to the Balkans, draining manpower elsewhere. When war broke out in Germania, there were few Legions left to take on the Germanic tribes.

The Roman Empire in 395 CE. (Wikimedia Commons)

After the battles in the Balkans, Arminius, a German chieftain of the Cherusci tribe, returned to Germania from Rome. Sent there as a hostage in his youth, Arminius was drafted into the military and earned an education. The young Cheruscan impressed his teachers, who ensured he was granted Roman citizenship and service in the Legions. Arminius worked diligently as an advisor to Varus, a Roman general famed for his brutality and tactical skills. The two had fought together in the Balkans, and respected one another. In the aftermath of the Illyrian Riot, Varus – the Praetor of Germania – had only 3 Legions, or 15,000 men, in the region. But with an excellent right hand man like Arminius, he felt reasonably confident of his odds against the Germanic tribes.

A small unit of Roman Legionaries (or, LARPers dressing up as them). (Brian Straight)

This would not have been a problem, but Arminius (while working alongside Varus) had actually formed a secret alliance with seven prominent Germanic tribes totalling about 20,000 warriors. Fake reports of a Germanic uprising intrigued Varus, who mobilized his legions and began marching off to investigate. Arminius led him through the dense woods of Germania to a spot in Osnabrück County in Lower Saxony. Telling Varus he was heading off to raise Germanic troops to support the Romans, Arminius slipped off into the treeline; but as soon as he was out of sight, the Cherusci chieftain made contact with his men and began forming them up to attack his former boss.

The dense tracks of the Teutoburg Forest limited Roman mobility. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Battle

Varus’ men set off into the woods sometime in September of 9 CE. Dio Cassius writes that Varus’ Legions were spread thinly along the narrow forest paths, unable to march in combat formation. They were interspersed with plenty of “camp followers” too, many of them wives and children of the soldiers. The Legions were spread nearly 20 km (12.4 miles) along the dense track, and, without modern communications equipment, Varus had no idea how his men down the line were fairing. As the Legions plodded through the mud, the clouds broke, and soon the column was drenched with rain.

A modern reenactment of the battle. (Stephen Boyd Blog)

On Arminius’ order, the Germanic warriors attacked. Armed with small swords and javelins, they stormed screaming out of the forest and hacked away at the Roman column. The Legionnaires’ armour – comprised of steel and leather – was heavy with water, and their bows were ruined by the rain. With his keen understanding of Roman tactics, Arminius was able to direct his fighters to strike isolated groups of Romans and then run back into the darkened woods before Varus’ men could regroup. The remaining Romans and their families managed to set up a fortified camp for the night; shivering and anxiously watching the treeline until dawn, many survived, but were less lucky as they attempted a breakout. The following day, the remainder of Varus’ Legions were surrounded and massacred in the Great Bog as they tried to run. Knowing he could never return to Rome, Varus committed suicide; his head was taken as a prize by Arminius’ tribes, and nearly all of his three legions – and their families – were killed. The remainder were enslaved.

The lightly-equipped Germans were much more nimble in the dense woods. (Pinterest)

Aftermath

The battle – or rather, massacre – in the Teutoburg Wald (forest) was one of Rome’s only real defeats up till that point. When he heard the news, Augustus was so upset that he began banging his head against the walls of his palace, shouting:

Quintili Vare, legiones redde! Quintus Varus, give me back my Legions!”

Augustus

Augustus was right to be upset. The Pax Romana relied heavily on a perception of Rome’s ability to project massive force anywhere within the Empire. Many Roman subjects were fed up with Roman hegemony; Calgacus describes the Pax Romana as “making a wasteland and calling it peace”, and many in the Empire – notably Arminius – agreed.

Arminius (or, Hermann) symbolically frees Germania in this 1818 propaganda piece by Karl Russ. (Wikimedia Commons)

But, despite Augustus’ frustration, Arminius’ victory may have been largely symbolic – and temporary. Although many historians lament the Battle of the Teutoburg Wald as the end of Roman expansion, this is simply not the case: Roman military expeditions continued for decades after, and the few remaining slaves captured by Arminius were eventually freed from Germanic captivity 40 years after the battle. If anything, the defeat of Varus’ forces really only served to delay Roman expansion – and put a dent in the facade of Roman invincibility.

ASAP Notes

In a hurry? Here are the ASAP notes on this topic.

  • Who? Roman General Varus and 15,000 men, as well as many civilians; they faced off against nearly 20,000 Germanic tribesmen under Arminius, a Roman-trained Cherusci chieftain.
  • Where? In the Teutoburg Forest near Osnabrück County in Lower Saxony, near the Weser River in modern-day Germany.
  • When? In September of 9 CE.
  • What? Three Roman Legions were lured into the Teutoburg Forest by Arminius, an advisor to Varus. Arminius slipped away and directed attacks at the stretched-out, 20km long Roman column. Arminius’ men attacked quickly with short swords and javelins before disappearing into the woods; the Romans, unable to mount an effective counterattack, were wiped out.
  • Why? Arminius knew exactly what Varus was going to do due to the former’s Roman military education. The Legions were unable to fight back due to their inability to form up properly in the tight forest path, and torrential rains weighed them down and degraded their bows. Varus was unable to gain control of his men on the massive front.
  • Result: Decisive Germanic victory. The defeat shook Emperor Augustus’ faith in his abilities and delayed Roman expansion.

Food for Thought

Like what you’ve read? Here are a couple essay questions/prompts to get you thinking. Good writing is all about answering questions the reader didn’t know they had, after all. These questions are to inspire further research, help with an academic paper, or maybe just get you thinking more about the topic.

  • Why did Varus trust Arminius? Was he warned not to?
  • Did Augustus overextend himself in Germania? Was it ever really worth it to pursue expansion there?
  • What were some notable Roman successes during the engagement?
  • What was life like for the “camp followers” – the civilians who tagged along with the Roman column?
  • What was the significance of the battle in a German historical context?

Further Reading & Citations

Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!

  • Benario, Herbert W. “Teutoburg.” The Classical World 96, no. 4 (2003): 397-406.
  • Pagán, Victoria E. “Beyond Teutoburg: Transgression and Transformation in Tacitus Annales 1.61-62.” Classical Philology 94, no. 3 (1999): 302-20. 
  • Wells, Peter S. 2003. The battle that stopped Rome: Emperor Augustus, Arminius, and the slaughter of the legions in the Teutoburg Forest. New York: W.W. Norton.
  • Murdoch, Adrian. 2006. Rome’s greatest defeat: massacre in the Teutoburg Forest. Stroud [England]: Sutton.
  • Winkler, Martin M. 2016. Arminius the Liberator: myth and ideology.

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