In the summer of Publius Quintilius Varus assumed command of the army of the Rhine in AD 9, Roman general Germania. Rome had been dealing with a Pannonian tribal revolt and wanted to avoid similar uprisings. But serving under Varus was a German cavalry commander named Arminius, son of the Cherusci high tribal chief and a longtime ally of Rome, who was secretly plotting the destruction of Rome’s legions in Germania.
That autumn Varus prepared to move his army to winter quarters on the Lippe River. A Cheruscan noble named Segestes, whose daughter had married Arminius against his wishes, warned Varus that his son-in-law could not be trusted. Varus ignored the warning.
The Roman force included the XVII, XVIII and XIX legions (about 15,000 men), three alae (600) of Roman cavalry and six cohorts (3,500–4,000) of German infantry. Accompanying them were 8,000–10,000 noncombatants and a train of supply and baggage wagons. Since the army was moving through ostensibly friendly territory in the company of Arminius’ cavalry, Varus dispensed with the customary security patrols.
On the second day, as the army moved into woodland cut by streams and gullies, Arminius and his men vanished, yet Varus failed to order his legions into formation. Suddenly, German tribesmen emerged from the woods and struck the Roman rear guard, hurling javelins into its ranks. The legions formed, but not before taking heavy casualties. The Germans again vanished.
The next day Varus marched his men to open ground, hoping to draw the Germans into battle. Arminius instead sent skirmishers to harass the Romans. Varus’ cavalry kept Arminius’ main force at bay, but the javelin attacks continued. That night the badly mauled Roman army holed up inside its fortified field camp a mile from the Doren ravine.
Arminius’ forces spent the night felling trees and otherwise obstructing the floor of the ravine. They left one clear route—a path flanked by swamp and forested slopes. Then they took up position on the slopes and waited.
The next morning, in a downpour, the Romans entered the ravine. Bogged down in mud, they endured a hailstorm of German javelins before turning back toward camp. Arminius then ordered a general attack, and thousands of his men poured down from the hillside, turning the Roman retreat into a rout. German horsemen slaughtered the fleeing Roman cavalry units.
Some Roman officers perished bravely while others fell on their swords rather than be captured. A wounded Varus was among the latter. But most of the Roman infantry fought to the last man. The Romans lost three full legions and 10,000 noncombatants—some 20,000 men in all. Captives were crucified, buried alive or sacrificed on makeshift altars. The Germans impaled victims’ heads on spears or nailed them to tree trunks.
The Roman defeat ended the empire’s ambition to extend its frontiers from the Rhine to the Elbe. Had Rome succeeded, as J.F.C. Fuller notes, “There would have been no Franco-German problem. There would have been no Charlemagne, no Louis XIV, no Napoléon, no Kaiser Wilhelm II and no Hitler.”
■ Win hearts and minds. Roman occupiers had long antagonized the Germans.
■ Employ due diligence. Varus made a fatal error when he failed to determine whether Arminius was trustworthy.
■ Remember that allies are not the same as friends. Varus forgot that alliances are based on common interests; when the interests of the Germanic tribes diverged from those of Rome, a fight was inevitable.
■ Mind the terrain. Teutoburg was a bad place to engage in Roman-style combat.
■ Be flexible. Varus would not adapt to unconventional warfare. His stubborn reliance on standard formations under ambush in poor terrain doomed his army.
■ Maintain field security. Many armies have been ambushed and annihilated while on the march. Beyond one’s own borders, there is no “friendly territory” for invading armies.
■ Resist temptation. Varus tried to lure Arminius into a set-piece battle after Germanic skirmishers had taken a heavy toll. Arminius refused to squander his tactical advantage.
■ Exploit psy-ops. Arminius’ forces slaughtered the Romans to the last man and nailed their skulls to trees, sending a strong message to Rome about the risks of venturing past the Rhine.
Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.