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Battle of the Teutoburg Forest: Germans Massacre Three Roman LegionsSeptember 12th, 2011 by Siggurdsson « Previous story Next story »
Today in Military History: September 9-11, AD 9
With today's post, I'm returning to my ancient/medieval comfort zone of history. This "battle" stopped the march of the Roman Empire into northern Europe, and – literally – gave the first emperor Caesar Augustus a huge headache.
By the beginning of the Christian Era (as the PC academics call it), the Roman Empire had subdued all of continental Europe west of the Danube and south and west of the Rhine. Its armies had also conquered North Africa from Morocco to Egypt, as well as Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), parts of Syria, and Palestine (the dark and medium green areas in the map below).
When Octavian Caesar, the nephew and adopted son of Gaius Julius Caesar, was awarded the titles of "Augustus and Princeps" by the Senate in 27 BC, it signaled a new direction for the Roman Republic. Years of unrest had sapped the authority of the Senate and the courts. Caesar made a show of returning to the trappings of the old Republic. However, he actually held the power in the nation, especially through his patronage of military commanders and the veterans of the civil wars (originally triggered by the assassination of his uncle in 44 BC).
Bust of Caesar Augustus (reigned 27 BC-AD 14)
From the time period of 11 BC to about AD 4, Roman armies sought to conquer the wild Germanic tribes living east of the Rhine. [Although Roman historians – especially Julius Caesar in his "War Commentaries" – drew distinctions between the Gauls and the Germans, these tribal groups were actually all Celtic peoples.] The Romans took over an area between the Rhine and Elbe rivers. However, holding onto that area became a chore. A total of 11 Roman legions (a total of between 60,000 and 70,000 men) were needed to keep the inhabitants in check.
In AD 6, a major rebellion broke out in the nearby province of Illyricum (which included parts of modern-day Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hungary, Serbia, and Slovenia). This revolt was deemed to be of such import that eight of the eleven legions in Germania were assigned to quell it. This left a mere three legions to keep the Germans in line.
The Roman force was led by Publius Quinctilius Varus, a noble from a patrician family, related to the Imperial family (he was married to the grandniece of Augustus), and an experienced administrative official, who was assigned to consolidate the new province of Germania in the autumn of AD 6. Varus' name and deeds were well known beyond the borders of the empire because of his ruthlessness and crucifixion of insurgents, while previously governor of the provinces of Africa and Syria.
Varus quickly developed a reputation for arrogance and cruelty. By pursuing policies of heavy taxation and showing disrespect for Germanic culture, he caused many of the Germanic tribes that were allied to Rome to reconsider their position as well as drove neutral tribes to open rebellion. While feared by the Germans, he was highly respected by the Roman senate. He was probably the fourth most important person in the Roman world of his time.
Arminius was born in 18 or 17 BC, a son of the Cheruscan chief Segimerus. He was trained as a Roman military commander – probably as a hostage – and subsequently attained Roman citizenship and the status of equestrian (or petty noble) before returning to Germania. He was serving as a commander of auxiliary forces under Varus. Despite the honors heaped upon him, he still felt the need to defend and liberate his homeland from the yoke of Rome. Consequently, Arminius secretly contacted a number of Germanic tribes – including the (Cherusci, the Marsi, the Chatti, the Bructeri, the Chanci, and the Sicambri – and hatched the seeds of one of the worst military defeats in Roman military history since the battle of Cannae in 216 BC.
Prelude to Battle
During the summer of 9 AD, Varus and his legions worked to put down various small rebellions along the frontier. In these campaigns, Varus led three legions (the XVII, XVIII, and XIX), six independent cohorts of auxiliaries, and three squadrons of cavalry. A formidable army, it was further supplemented by allied German troops including those of the Cherusci tribe led by Arminius. It also had a large number of camp followers; the total number of the army was somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000.
As fall approached, Varus began moving the army from the Weser River towards its winter quarters along the Rhine. En route, he received reports of uprisings which required his attention. These reports were fabricated by Arminius who may have suggested that Varus move through the unfamiliar Teutoburg Forest to accelerate the march. Before moving out, a rival Cheruscan nobleman, Segestes whose daughter was married to Arminius, told Varus that Arminius was plotting against him. Varus dismissed this warning as the result of a personal feud between the two Cheruscans. Prior to the army moving out, Arminius departed under the pretext of rallying more allies, taking the German allied troops under his command with him.
Ambush in the Forest
As the Roman force set out on the morning of September 9, the line of march was strung out for over 9 miles, perhaps even 12 miles. In addition, heavy rains began to fall. The Teutoburg Forest was a very thickly wooded area, and the rains added dense fog to the conditions.
Teutoburg Forest today
The narrow trails through the Teutoburg prohibited the Romans from marching in a standards battle formation. Adding to the Romans' problems, Varus neglected to send out scouts or any sort of reconnaissance forces.
At some point during the late morning or early afternoon, the marching column was attacked by large numbers of German tribesmen. As a student of Roman military tactics, Arminius fully understood Roman tactics and could direct his troops to counter Roman moves effectively, using locally superior numbers against the dispersed Roman legions. Armed with light swords and short spears with little to no armor, the Germans attacked the Romans relentlessly for the rest of the day, giving their enemy no respite. As nightfall approached, the Romans somehow managed to construct a night camp. However, they passed the night in very uncomfortable conditions. Some of the men had either lost or thrown away their tents, and the now torrential rains made the lighting of fires impossible.
The next morning, Varus ordered the march to continue. After a few hours of marching, the Roman force broke out into open country north of the modern town of Ostercappeln. The break-out cost the Romans heavy casualties, as did a further attempt to escape by marching through another forested area, as the torrential rains continued. The rain prevented them from using their bows because the sinew strings become slack when wet. In addition, the rains also rendered their shields virtually useless as they became waterlogged.
The Trap Is Sprung
Varus then made a fateful, fatal decision; rather than try to set up another night camp, he ordered a night march to throw the harassing Germans off their scent. This was a tactical mistake, as the Romans did not know the terrain well. The legionaries were not wet and exhausted after two days and nights of hard fighting and rains. Many men were throwing away their packs and extraneous equipment to lighten the march. Unfortunately, they were playing right into the hands of their enemy.
As they marched through the forest, following a sandy track, they came to a high local hill called the Kalkriese. This hill limited the width of the track, which was following a swampy area known as the Great Bog. At this point, the Germans had constructed a trench blocking the road, and an earthen-and-wooden wall was built to the sides. This barrier essentially allowed the Romans to march right into a well-prepared trap (see below). The Germans bombarded the Romans with arrows and spears.
In desperation, the Romans launched uncoordinated attacks at the German bulwarks, but failed to break out. At this point, the Roman cavalry commander took the remains of his three squadrons and fled the field – although his force was caught by the German cavalry and many were killed. The Germans pressed their attacks, and scores of Romans died as the day progressed. Finally, realizing that his army was done for, Varus committed suicide by falling on his sword in the prescribed Roman fashion. Many of his subordinate officers followed suit, though some were captured by the Germans.
Modern historians estimate that between 15,000 and 20,000 Romans, auxiliaries and camp followers were killed in the three-day running fight. A few surrendered, but many were captured. Some of the prisoners were ransomed, but most were enslaved. A number of the Roman officers were sacrificed in German religious rituals.
Footnote #1: The battle standards of the three annihilated legions – the eagles – fell into the hands of the Germans, a deeply humiliating act. Later Roman expeditions recovered two of the three standards late in the year 16. The other was restored to the army in AD 42, during the reign of the emperor Claudius.
Footnote #2: The shame and humiliation of the destruction of the XVII, XVIII, and XIX legions was so great, their numbers were removed from the Roman orders of battle and they were never reconstituted.
Footnote #3: When word of this catastrophe reached Augustus in Rome, it was not a pretty sight. According to the historian Suetonius, Caesar ripped his clothing to pieces, began slamming his head against the walls of his palace, and screamed, "Quintili Vare! Legiones redde!" (Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions) For months afterwards, the emperor refused to cut his hair, and on occasion would be heard to moan the above words over and over. One historian claims this was one of the few times that the normally stoic ruler lost his composure. Augustus died in August of AD 14.
Footnote #4: Archaeologists have excavated the area of Kalkriese Hill over the last 25 years, finding over 6000 Roman items.
Footnote #5: A 2009 alternate history novel by Harry Turtledove tells the story of this battle, with the title "Give Me Back My Legions!"Posted in top stories | 6 comments « Previous story Next story »
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Dave Newberry (not verified)
September 23, 2011 - 8:45pm
Imagine a General and his staff that took their own lives for failure today. Afghanistan would have been a victory six years ago.
Greg McLean (not verified)
August 10, 2015 - 3:22pm
I saw a movie on cable the other day depicting this battle and seeing just how strung out and narrow the mountain trail was giving no room for the Roman legions to form up the end result of total loss was obvious... I understand some of those Roman Officers were burned alive in cages while others cooked in pots not a very pleasant way to die and think falling on your sword as some did was much preferred way to die.
Bischoff (not verified)
March 27, 2016 - 8:32am
We in Germany have held off the legions and every attack has through time been another jab at us from the beginning of time. This is way older than America and the fact that the slaves had been taken. When can Germany know it's piece and being.
Abhishek (not verified)
January 4, 2018 - 1:14pm
The legionaries were wet and exhausted after two days and nights of hard fighting and rains.
Ralph (not verified)
February 26, 2018 - 6:37pm
Historians now know the Romans unleashed viscous attacks on The Germans. Capturing Arminius`s wife. The nest decades the Romans reached through most of Germany. Killing and enslaving many. Germanicus,Maimum Thrax and many more. They had a relative easy time doing this. In addition, Arminius was killed by local chieftains because of Roman retribution. Another very important things is climate and the in ability to plant vines In most of Germany. This was very important to the Romans amazingly enough. Also, the long winters would never appeal to most, as it does today. They didn't have furnaces though, so it was not pretty.
Ralph (not verified)
February 26, 2018 - 6:54pm
Germanicus' successes were considerable: the Lippe valley and the North Sea coast had been reconquered, Arminius defeated, Roman prestige restored. It was up to the emperor Tiberius to decide what to do next: to accept the conquests and return to the aggressive policy of Augustus, or to stick to his own position, and leave the Germanic tribes alone. He chose the latter: the Lippe valley was evacuated by the Romans, and the tribes, left alone, started to fight against each other. Arminius was murdered, Germanicus recalled.
It was a wise decision. During the next decades, the Roman legions were sometimes to invade Germania, and Roman diplomats were always able to create disputes among the tribes. For more than two centuries, the west bank of the Rhine was safe.
It is possible to overstate the importance of the battle in the Teutoburg Forest. As we have already seen above, this certainly happened in the nineteenth century, when, especially in Germany, Arminius, and Varus became symbols of an eternal opposition between the noble Germanic savages and their decadent, Latin speaking archenemies - the French.
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