Battle of the Teutoburg Forest

comprehensive defeat of forces of Roman Empire in 9 CE

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest was a military battle that took place in the year 9 AD. In the battle, an alliance of Germanic tribes won a major victory over three Roman legions. The Germanic tribes were led by Arminius, the Roman legions by Publius Quinctilius Varus.

Battle of the Teutoburg Forest
Part of the Roman-Germanic wars

Cenotaph of Marcus Caelius, 1st centurion of XVIII, who "fell in the war of Varus" (bello Variano)
Reconstructed inscription: "To Marcus Caelius, son of Titus, of the Lemonian district, from Bologna, first centurion of the eighteenth legion. 53½ years old. He fell in the Varian War. His bones may be interred here. Publius Caelius, son of Titus, of the Lemonian district, his brother, erected (this monument)".[1]
DateSeptember, 9 AD (no exact date)
Location
Result Germanic victory
Roman Empire's withdrawal from Germany
Belligerents
Germanic tribes (Cherusci, Marsi, Chatti, Bructeri, Chauci and Sicambri). Roman Empire
Commanders and leaders
Arminius Publius Quinctilius Varus
Strength
12,000 – 32,000 20,000 – max. 36,000:
3 Roman legions (XVII, XVIII/XIIX, and XIX/XVIIII),
3 alae and
6 auxiliary cohorts
Casualties and losses
unknown 16,000 dead [2][3]
some enslaved
The Teutoburg Forest

It was more than a Germanic victory: it was the complete destruction of three Roman legions and all of their commanders. The few men who survived were made slaves.[4] It was one of the two greatest disasters in Roman military history, the other being at the Battle of Cannae. Apart from occasional raids and campaigns, the Romans never again held Germanic land across the Rhine.

The battle began a seven-year war. The war ended with the Rhine as the boundary of the Roman Empire for the next 400 years, until the decline of the Western Roman Empire.

Leaders

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The Roman commander, Varus, was about the fourth man in Rome by importance, after Augustus, Tiberius and Germanicus. Varus was known and feared because of his ruthless actions and his crucifixion of defeated enemies. It is certain that was known to the Germans, which may have helped the tribes come together to resist him.

The German commander was Arminius, who had been given a Roman military education. He had spent his youth in Rome as a hostage. Therefore, he knew Roman military methods, knowledge that was to be crucial.

Later, Arminius returned to Germania with Varus and became his trusted advisor.[4] In secret, he forged an alliance of Germanic tribes that had traditionally been enemies.[5] He was helped to do so by the anger over Varus' insolence and jus cruelty to the people that he had defeated.[6][7]

"...Stratagem was, therefore, indispensable; and it was necessary to blind Varus to their schemes until a favorable opportunity should arrive for striking a decisive blow..." British historian Edward Shepherd Creasy (1812–1878)

While Varus was on his way from his summer camp, west of the Weser River, to the winter headquarters near the Rhine, he heard reports of a local rebellion that had been faked by Arminius.[8]

"...This was represented to Varus as an occasion which required his prompt attendance at the spot; but he was kept in studied ignorance of its being part of a concerted national rising; and he still looked on Arminius as his submissive vassal..." Edward Shepherd Creasy

Recent archaeological finds place the battle at Kalkriese Hill in Osnabrück County, Lower Saxony.[5] The Romans must have then been marching northwestward from the area that is now the city of Detmold, passed east of Osnabrück and camped in the area before they were attacked.

Battle

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Varus's forces included three legions, six cohorts of auxiliary troops (non-citizens or allied troops) and three squadrons of cavalry. Many of them had little combat experience against Germanic fighters under local conditions.

The Roman forces were not marching in combat formation, and there were also large numbers of camp followers. As they entered the forest, they found the track narrow and muddy. According to Dio Cassius, a violent storm had also arisen. He also wrote that Varus had neglected to send out advance reconnaissance parties.

The line of march was dangerously stretched out. Estimates are that it was more than 15 km (9 miles) and perhaps as long as 20 km (12 miles).[4] It was then suddenly attacked by Germanic warriors, who were carrying light swords, large lances and spears that came with short and narrow blades that were so sharp and warrior-friendly that they could be used as required. The Germanic warriors surrounded the entire Roman army and rained down javelins on the intruders.[9]

The Romans set up a fortified night camp and the next morning broke out into open country, near the modern town of Ostercappeln. The break-out cost them heavy losses, as did a further attempt to escape by marching through another forest area, with heavy rains continuing. The rain stopped them from using their bows because sinew strings become slack when wet, which left them virtually defenceless, as their shields also became waterlogged.

The Romans then began a night march to escape but marched into another trap that Arminius had set, at the foot of a hill near Osnabrück. There, the sandy open strip on which the Romans could march easily narrowed at the bottom of the hill. There was a gap of only about 100 m between the woods and the swampland at the edge of the Great Bog. The road was blocked by a trench, and towards the forest, an earthen wall had been built along the roadside. That let the tribesmen to attack the Romans from cover.

The Romans made a desperate attempt to storm the wall but failed. The Germanic warriors then stormed the field and slaughtered the Romans. Varus committed suicide.[4]

Around 15,000 to 20,000 Roman soldiers must have died. Varus and many of his officers are said to have taken their own lives by falling on their swords in the approved manner.[4] Tacitus wrote that many officers were sacrificed by the Germans as part of their indigenous religious ceremonies. They were cooked in pots with their bones used for rituals.[10] However, others were ransomed, and some of the common soldiers were enslaved.

The victory over the legions was followed by a clean sweep of all Roman forts, garrisons and cities, of which there were at least two, east of the Rhine. The remaining two Roman legions in Germany were stationed in a fort at Mainz and commanded by Varus' nephew. They were content to try to hold the Rhine.

Varus's mistakes

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  1. Segestes, the father of Arminius' wife and opposed to the marriage, warned Varus about Arminius. The night before the Roman forces had left, he suggested that Varus should arrest Arminius and several other Germanic leaders. He must have known that they were plotting an uprising. Varus dismissed the advice as motivated by a personal feud. Arminius then left by saying that he would drum up Germanic forces to support the Roman campaign. Instead, he led his troops, who must have been waiting nearby, in attacks on surrounding Roman garrisons.
  2. Even without the warning, Varus, as a matter of policy, should have been less trusting of Arminius, who turned out to be a double agent.
  3. The choice of a march through the forest was against normal Roman military methods because both vision and defence are limited in a forest. The march was not done in combat formation. Obviously, the route was chosen as a shortcut, but Varus had no proof that such urgency was really necessary. That was doubly so, as the forest caused the line to stretch so far that one part could not support another.
  4. The lack of scouts ("reconnaissance parties") was almost criminal and would probably have had Varus executed if he had not taken his life.
  5. The bad weather was another good reason for caution in going into the forest, which was unknown ground to Varus. New routes should always be scouted.

It will never be known why Varus made those mistakes, but his reputation for arrogance and overconfidence suggests that he underestimated the Germans. All of Rome's previous experience, however, from Julius Caesar onwards had shown the Germanic tribes to be strong in war.

Aftermath

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Upon hearing of the defeat, Emperor Augustus, according to the Roman historian Suetonius in his work De vita Caesarum (On the life of the Caesars), was so shaken by the news that he stood butting his head against the wall of his palace and repeatedly shouted:

Quintili Vare, legiones redde!“ ('Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!')

The three legion numbers were never used again by the Romans after this defeat, unlike other legions that were restructured, a case unique in Roman history.

The battle ended the period of triumphant Roman expansion that had followed the end of the Civil Wars forty years earlier. Augustus' stepson Tiberius took effective control and prepared for the continuation of the war. Three legions were sent to the Rhine to replace the lost legions.

Roman retaliation

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The Roman commander Germanicus was the opponent of Arminius in 14–16 AD

Their shock at the slaughter was great, but the Romans began a slow and systematic preparation to reconquer the country. In 14 AD, just after Augustus' death and the accession of his heir and stepson Tiberius, a huge raid was led by the new emperor's nephew Germanicus.

On a starry night, he massacred the Marsi and ravaged their villages with fire and sword. That night, the Germans had celebrated; drunk and asleep, they were surprised by Germanicus. The temple of their deity was destroyed.

Several other tribes were roused by the slaughter and ambushed Germanicus on the way to his winter quarters, but they were defeated with heavy losses.[11][12]

The next year was marked by two major campaigns and several smaller battles with a large army, estimated at 55,000 to 70,000 men, backed by naval forces. In spring 15 AD, the legate Caecina Severus invaded the Marsi a second time with 25,000 to 30,000 men, and caused great havoc.

Meanwhile, Germanicus' troops had built a fort on Mount Taunus from where he marched with 30,000 to 35,000 men against the Chatti (probably a region of villages) and slaughtered children, women, and the elderly. The able-bodied men fled across a river and hid themselves in the forests. After that blow, Germanicus marched on Mattium and burned the city down.[13][14]

In summer 15 AD, the army visited the site of the first battle. According to Tacitus, they found heaps of bones, and skulls nailed to trees, which they buried, "looking on all as kinsfolk and of their own blood". Burial pits with remains fitting this description have been found at Kalkriese Hill.

Under Germanicus, the Romans marched another army, with allied Germanic soldiers, into Germania in 16 AD. He fought his way across the Weser near modern Minden and suffered some losses. He forced Arminius' army to stand in open battle at the Weser River. Germanicus's legions inflicted huge casualties on the Germanic armies but sustained only minor losses.

One final battle was fought at the Angivarian Wall west of modern Hanover. Again, many Germanic soldiers were killed, which forced the survivors to flee. In summer 16 AD, Caius Silius marched against the Chatti with 33,000 men. Germanicus invaded the Marsi for a third time and devastated their land.[15]

With his main goals reached and winter coming, Germanicus ordered his army back to their winter camps, with the fleet getting damaged in a storm in the North Sea. After a few more raids across the Rhine, with the recovery of two of the three Roman legions' eagles lost in 9 AD, Tiberius ordered the Roman forces to halt and withdraw across the Rhine. Germanicus was recalled to Rome and informed by Tiberius that he would be given a triumph and a new command.[16][17][18]

Germanicus' campaign had been to revenge the defeat at Teutoburg but also partly in reaction to signs of mutiny amongst his troops.

Arminius, who had been considered a real threat to stability by Rome, was now defeated. Once his allied Germanic coalition had been broken and honour avenged, the huge cost and risk of keeping the Roman army operating beyond the Rhine was not worth any likely benefit to be gained.[4]

The last chapter of this story is told by the historian Tacitus. Around 50 AD, bands of Chatti invaded Roman territory and began to plunder (take everything of value). The Roman commander, with a legionary force supported by Roman cavalry and auxiliaries, attacked the Chatti from both sides and defeated them. The Romans were very happy to find Roman prisoners, including some from Varus' legions who had been held by the Chatti for forty years.[19]

Later German nationalism

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The battle,[20] and the histories of Tacitus, had a big effect on 19th century German nationalism. In the 19th century the Germans were still divided into many German states, but they linked themselves with the Germanic tribes as shared ancestors of one "German people".

In 1808, the German author Heinrich von Kleist's play Die Hermannsschlacht aroused anti-Napoleonic sentiment, even though it could not be performed under French occupation.

Later, the figure of Arminius was used to represent the ideals of freedom and unification – as supported by German liberals, and opposed by reactionary rulers. A memorial – the Hermannsdenkmal – was begun during this period, and Arminius became a symbol of Pan-Germanism. The monument remained unfinished for decades, until after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 unified the country. The completed monument was then a symbol of conservative German nationalism.

References

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  1. "Marcus Caelius". www.livius.org. 2010. Archived from the original on 2010-03-08. Retrieved 2012-05-28.
  2. Wells, Peter S. The Battle that stopped Rome. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 2003, p. 187 ISBN 0-393-32643-8
  3. Kevin Sweeney, Scholars look at factors surrounding Hermann’s victory Archived 2011-07-14 at the Wayback Machine. www.nujournal.com
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 Fergus M. Bordewich 2005. "The ambush that changed history" in Smithsonian Magazine, September 2005, pp. 74–81.
  5. 5.0 5.1 "Publius Quinctilius Varus (46 BC--9 AD)". www.livius.org. 2010.
  6. "Ancient Library: Drusus". Archived from the original on 2012-10-12. Retrieved 2010-11-19.
  7. "Germans under Arminius revolt against Rome". Edward Shepherd Creasy, The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol. 2. 1905.
  8. "Livius: Legio XVII". Archived from the original on 2012-10-14. Retrieved 2010-11-19.
  9. Spilsbury Julian (2010). Great Military Disasters. UK: Quercus. ISBN 9781848660397.
  10. Tacitus, Annals, I.61
  11. Tacitus, Annals, I.50
  12. Tacitus, Annals, I.51
  13. Matthew Bunson: A dictionary of the Roman Empire. Oxford University Press US 1995, ISBN 0195102339, p83
  14. Tacitus, Annals, I.56
  15. Tacitus, Annals, II.25
  16. Tacitus, Annals, II.26
  17. An image of a coin of Germanicus with a recovered standard can be seen at http://www.livius.org/le-lh/legio/xvii.html Archived 2012-10-14 at the Wayback Machine
  18. Tacitus: [1] Archived 2011-11-15 at the Wayback Machine Annals: Book 2 {Chapter 32}
  19. Tacitus, Annals, XII.27
  20. which is called Schlacht im Teutoburger Wald, Varusschlacht or Hermannsschlacht in German