In defeating the Roman army, a Teutonic prince turned the tide of modern history.
SEPTEMBER AD 9. SOME 18,000 ROMAN LEGIONAIRIES AND THEIR SUPPORTING COHORTS are slogging through a dank German forest on their way to suppress an uprising by a handful of Teutonic tribes. The sky—what little of it can be glimpsed through the tops of the tall trees—threatens rain that could slow their progress even more. As they move along a narrow defile beside the Kalkriese Hill in northern Germany, the three legions are thinned into a slender, sluggish column, just a few men abreast and stretched out precariously over several miles.
Gaul and the Germanic lands east of the Rhine River have been peaceful for some time, but the legionaries are marching in territory to the east of the Rhine, a sweeping, forested wilderness extending from present-day Poland to the Netherlands and peopled by fierce tribes. Three years before, Roman armies had been poised to make ambitious eastward advances, hoping to incorporate all of the lands between the Rhine and Elbe Rivers into the empire, but then a titanic revolt in Pannonia had diverted the attention and manpower of the Roman military. Yet even during the Pannonia crisis, five legions had continued to guard the imperial provinces of Germania Inferior (Lower Germany) and Germany Superior (Upper Germany), and the friendly tribes on the west side of the Rhine had continued their gradual Romanization. It had been a leader from one of those allied tribes, Arminius, who had warned of the uprising that the legionairies are now marching to suppress. A 25-year-old prince of the Cherusci, Arminius speaks Latin and has been recognized by the Romans for his valor in past battles.
Moving three legions, six auxiliary infantry cohorts, and three auxiliary alae, or wings, of cavalry through a dense forest is no easy task. Thousands of pack animals weighed down with supplies have to be coaxed and prodded carefully through the woodland and along the swampy ground. The Romans are forced to hack their way through the trees or throw temporary bridges across rugged stretches so that men, animals, and wagons can cross. Making matters worse, the weather has turned ugly, and a relentless downpour drenches the men as they trudge on. Their commander, Publius Quinctilius Varus, a seasoned administrator but inexperienced military leader, is not worried, confident in the competence of his soldiers and the tribal allies on the route of his march. In fact, accompanying him are leaders from various friendly tribes.
As the marching column struggles on through the thickest part of the forest, the unsuspecting Varus remains untroubled as one after another of these leaders makes an excuse for dropping away from the Roman column. Then, deep in the forest, the air fills suddenly with Teutonic war cries. The legionaries, split into penny packets up and down the defile, are taken completely by surprise. They grimly draw their short swords, ready their javelins, and prepare to defend themselves, but their position is nearly hopeless. The curses of soldiers goading their animals forward now gives way to the shouts and cries of men fighting for their lives, as a rain of Germanic spears shower them.
THE CORNERED LEGIONARIES DESPERATELY TRY TO FORM SOME SEMBLANCE OF A DEFENSIVE LINE wherever they stand. Initially, the Germans hang back, choosing to hurl missiles from a distance, but when they see that the Romans cannot mount effective counterattacks, they close in. Throughout the forest, Romans and Germans fight each other in wild melées beneath the rain-soaked boughs of the trees until darkness brings a reprieve from battle, and the Romans set up camp for the night.
The next day, abandoning their wagons, the Romans continue their march, hoping that they have made it out of the death zone. Initially, they pass through into open country, but then the way forward takes them back into the forest, where the Germans are waiting again. In the confined space of the woods, they are again unable to form up for a proper charge against the enemy, and they suffer more terrible losses.
Dogged by bad luck, the surviving imperial forces are pummeled by another heavy rainstorm and by high winds as they march on the following day. Shields become waterlogged and too heavy to hold high; weapons grow slick in their hands and become impossible to wield. The Germans, lightly equipped and quicker than the armored enemy, are less hindered by the pouring rain and reinforced by more men. Having heard that the Romans are cornered, other tribesmen have left their lands in large numbers to have a go at the beset legionaries and come away with a share of the plunder. Seeing the swelled ranks of the enemy, the already wounded Varus knows there can be no escape. Refusing to be captured alive and tortured to death, the doomed general and his senior officers commit suicide in the time-honored Roman manner: They plant their swords in the ground, points up, and impale themselves.
With their general and higher officers dead by their own hands, the fight goes out of the surviving Romans. They are cut down by the exultant Germans, who quickly begin looting their corpses. Scarcely any of the 18,000 men in Varus’s ill-fated army make their way back to Roman territory. “Never was there slaughter more cruel,” Roman historian Florus would later write, “than took place there in the marshes and woods.” Varus’s head is cleaved from his corpse and presented to Arminius, the “allied” chieftain who in fact had initiated the plot against the Romans. Arminius sends it on to Maroboduus, one of his Germanic rivals, perhaps as a ploy to incite a general rising across Germany. But Maroboduus refuses the bait, immediately sending the gory trophy on to Rome and staying out of Arminius’s war. Across Germany, however, the massive bloodletting continues as isolated and unsuspecting Roman detachments, thinking they are in friendly territory, are slaughtered by local tribes.
If the Romans had any good fortune that baleful September it was that their control in the Rhineland survived, thanks mainly to the presence of mind of Lucius Nonius Asprenas, Varus’s nephew. A commander in Germania Superior of two legions that had not taken part in the march, he immediately went on the defensive, making sure that no tribes on the western bank of the river had an opportunity to rebel. Soon, the general Tiberius, stepson of the emperor and commander of earlier successful campaigns in Germany, was on the scene, bolstering defenses and conducting punitive operations of his own on the eastern side of the Rhine. By the time Tiberius went into winter quarters, the threatening situation along the northern Rhine had been contained.
Historians can only speculate as to what prompted Arminius to hatch his plot against the Romans. His earlier military service to the empire had been of such distinction that he had risen to equestrian rank, just one rung below that of Rome’s senatorial class. He had probably received an education in Rome, and he likely seemed as Roman as the Romans themselves. Yet he may have seen in the creeping Romanization of his homeland the death knell of his culture and its permanent incorporation into the empire. Perhaps, too, he had seen Caesar’s voracious tax collectors at work and refused to let them take from his people anymore. In any case, Arminius seems to have decided that the Roman presence in Germany must come to an end.
Conspiring with other Germanic leaders, Arminius contrived to lure Varus and his legions out of their forward bases at Xanten and Haltern on the eastern side of the Rhine with the news that nearby tribes were in open revolt. The route there would take the Romans deep into the forest, where they would be vulnerable. In a pitched open battle, the legionaries were nearly invincible, but in thick woods, their many tactical advantages would be lost.
ROME HAD BEEN READYING ITSELF FOR A FESTIVAL CELEBRATING VICTORY IN PANNONIA when word of the massacre in Germania arrived. The triumphant mood in the city quickly evaporated, and the 71-year-old emperor Augustus was shattered by the news. The second century ad Roman historian Suetonius says the stricken emperor yelled “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!” as he banged his head on the doors of the palace. For months he would cut neither his hair nor his beard.
For Augustus, the period following the disaster was a time of supreme crisis. The prospect of an invasion of Italy by the barbarians seemed terrifyingly real. He also feared that the news of such a damaging blow to the Roman army might cause the Germans and Gauls who filled the city of Rome to rise up against the empire. To safeguard against an insurrection, he instituted night patrols in the streets, dismissed his German bodyguard, and banished Rome’s Germans and Gauls to the countryside.
The army was critical to Augustus’s grip on power. He made sure to keep almost all of the legions under his direct control and out of the hands of the senate. Though the army was his, he was not a warmonger. His primary aim was to restore the empire, left depleted and in disarray by the civil wars waged by Rome’s mighty generals. To that end, the gargantuan armies of the recent past had been disbanded, and in their place remained a slimmed-down force of 28 legions with some 165,000 men and an equivalent number of auxiliary troops recruited from noncitizens. To defend a sprawling empire that stretched over three continents with just over 300,000 soldiers was economical in the extreme, leaving little margin for disasters like the Clades Variana—the Varian Disaster, as the Romans came to call it. In just a few days, Arminius had destroyed a significant portion of the Roman army and torn a yawning gap in Rome’s frontier defenses.
From the beginning Varus, who was married to Augustus’s grandniece, was blamed heavily for “this frightful catastrophe” in the forest, as Marcus Velleius Paterculus, a soldier-historian and contemporary of the battle, described it. He wrote that Varus was “an easygoing character…slow to act physically and mentally…more familiar with the leisurely life of the camp than the rigors of the military campaign.” For centuries, the picture of Varus as an indolent fool who led his soldiers to their deaths has held sway. Yet this Roman patrician had served the empire well in a number of roles, including as governor of Syria. His greatest mistake in Germany was trusting Arminius, even though he had every reason to do so.
As a Cheruscan noble in the service of the imperial army, Arminius had many opportunities to get to know Varus and to win his confidence. It’s understandable, then, that when an uncle of Arminius warned Varus of his nephew’s plot to destroy the Roman army, the general waved him off. Varus would pay through history for his mistaken trust.
In ad 14, the formidable general Germanicus launched a punitive campaign against Arminius, taking eight legions across the Rhine to bring the Cheruscan leader to account. Several bruising engagements were fought, but Roman arms were not enough to overcome the determined German resistance. The legionaries did, however, find gruesome remains of that earlier bloodbath in the Teutoburg. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, they discovered “the whitening bones of men, as they had fled, or stood their ground, strewn everywhere or piled in heaps. Near lay fragments of weapons and limbs of horses, and also human heads, prominently nailed to trunks of trees. In the adjacent groves were the barbarous altars, on which they had immolated tribunes and first-rank centurions.”
Arminius’s successful rebellion derailed forever Augustus’s plan to create a new province of Germania Magna. Though the Romans did not lack the strength to make that a reality, they ultimately lacked the will. If the Romans had wanted to overwhelm Germany, they probably could have done so. Within a century of the Teutoburg debacle, they had in fact conquered and made provinces of Britain and Dacia (now Transylvania). But Germany in the first century ad was a very poor land, producing little in the way of wealth that the Romans might covet. The stubborn resistance of the tribes there, taken together with the calamity in the Teutoburg, likely convinced the new emperor, Tiberius, that the prize of a German province from the Rhine to the Elbe was not worth the tremendous cost. In retrospect, the Teutoburg Forest battle marked the definitive end of Roman expansion into Germany. “The results of this disaster,” Florus wrote, “was that the empire, which had not stopped on the shores of the Ocean, was checked on the banks of the Rhine.”
And so the Roman frontier remained firmly rooted at the Rhine—with profound repercussions. For four centuries the river corridor stood as a militarized zone through the middle of Europe, creating a cultural, religious, and linguistic cleavage between Roman Germany and the lands to the west and “Free Germany” to the east. This resulted in a Latinized western and southern Europe whose development was far different from that of northern and central Europe. How much might European history have differed if this division had instead run along the Elbe? Would the Roman Empire have fallen to the Germanic barbarians in Late Antiquity if a Roman Germania had become a reality? Would the Protestant Reformation have unfolded as it did if Germany had been Latinized in language and culture? Would a unified Germany have developed sooner, thereby avoiding the world wars of the 20th century that came as a late-arriving Germany, playing imperial catch-up, vied with the established European powers for its place in the sun?
THE PRECISE LOCATION AND EVEN THE STORY OF THE HISTORY-CHANGING BATTLE IN THE TEUTOBURG FOREST were soon forgotten. Then, 1,500 years later, the Annals of the historian Tacitus were rediscovered in an abbey in Corvey, Germany, and subsequently published in Italy. Among Germans, the battle soon acquired great cultural importance. In the early 16th century Martin Luther, involved in his own messy separation of the German church from Rome, would hail Arminius as the liberator of the German people. In 1736 George Frideric Handel composed the opera Arminio in the Teutonic prince’s honor.
Tacitus’s history, together with his shorter work Germania, would also add fuel to the fires of 19th-century German nationalism. In the Roman’s portrayal of the ancient Germans as a simple but brave and noble people, many Germans felt they had recovered their own history, lost for more than a thousand years. The valorous Arminius—Hermann to the Germans—and his destruction of the Roman legions provided a past around which the many Germanic states could unite.
Arminius was neither killed nor captured during the Roman campaigns against him. Tacitus reports that he met his end in ad 21 when he was slain by kin who feared that he would set himself up as king. But Tacitus does supply a fitting epitaph for the Cheruscan leader, calling him “the liberator of Germany” who had challenged Rome “not at its beginnings, like other kings and leaders, but when its empire was at its zenith…in war he was undefeated.” MHQ
MARC G. DeSANTIS is the author of Rome Seizes the Trident and A Naval History of the Peloponnesian War.
This article appears in the Spring 2018 issue (Vol. 30, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: ‘This Frightful Catastrophe’
Want to have the lavishly illustrated, premium-quality print edition of MHQ delivered directly to you four times a year? Subscribe now at special savings!