Battle of the Teutoburg Forest
In the year 6 CE a major revolt against Roman rule occurred throughout Dalmatia and Pannonia, which comprised the Roman province of Illyricum. It seemed to Romans the worst crisis they had experienced since the Second Punic War. The revolt was finally put down after three years, but a worse shock was to come with the annihilation of three Roman legions in Germany in the year 9.
The recently conquered area of Germany from the Rhine to the Elbe seemed peaceful, and the Roman legate of lower Germany, Publius Quinctilius Varus, was assigned to integrate it into the empire. Varus had been governor in Syria, and his talents lay in administration rather than as a field commander. His appointment to the German post strongly suggests that Emperor Augustus was unaware of the state of affairs there.
The Romans seem not to have appreciated the degree to which their rule—especially the taxes, which had to be paid in metal—was resented by the German tribes. Arminius, prince of the Cherusci, who had commanded German auxiliaries under Rome and had been rewarded with Roman citizenship for his exemplary service, took leadership of the revolt, although he kept his role secret. Arminius even suggested the route of march for the Roman legions to winter quarters, which he said would allow Varus to put down several small revolts en route.
In the summer of 9 CE Varus set out from his camp near the Weser River with three Roman legions (XVII, XVIII, and XIX), all veterans of fighting in Germany and totaling 15,000 to 18,000 men, including some cavalry. Family members and camp followers accompanied them as did German auxiliaries, totaling perhaps another 10,000 people. When the attack came, the unsuspecting Romans and their wagons were strung out over a considerable distance in the Teutoburg Forest (Teutoburger Wald), most probably near Osnabrück.
From archaeological digs at the site and the recovery of numerous Roman coins (none later than 9 CE) over a several-mile stretch, it would appear that the Romans simply marched into an ambush. Arminius had left the Roman column beforehand, allegedly telling Varus that he wanted to scout ahead. The German attackers numbered between 20,000 and 30,000 men and held the high ground on one side. There were marshes on the other side. Traditional Roman tactics could not be applied in the difficult terrain, and the Roman position was made worse by strong wind and rain.
On the first day the Germans engaged in hit-and-run attacks, causing significant Roman casualties. Varus threw up breastworks, however, holding the Germans at bay for the night. He then ordered the wagons burned, hoping that this would increase the speed of the Roman march. It had little effect, and the Romans then retreated to the original fortifications.
Over several days the three legions were slaughtered. Only a handful of soldiers managed to escape to the nearby Roman base at Aliso. Varus and his officers preferred to commit suicide rather than be taken. Indeed, the Germans sacrificed those captured.
Although Arminius brought Aliso under siege, he failed to take it and departed. The Roman garrison at Aliso then abandoned the city. Arminius made no attempt to follow up on his great victory by invading Italy or Gaul. It was impossible, as the tribes soon fell to quarreling among themselves. Prompt Roman action also secured their control of the Rhine bridges, but the loss of three legions with more than 10 percent of Roman military might (from 28 down to 25 legions) severely impacted Roman military options.
On learning of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, Emperor Augustus disbanded his German bodyguard, saying that no Germans could be trusted. He was also heard to cry “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!” The numbers of these three legions never were resurrected, even after Roman operations in 14–16 CE and 41 CE recovered their standards.
The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest signaled the end of Roman efforts to expand northward. Augustus was not only jolted to learn that Germany was not pacified but also was forced to rethink his entire suppositions about the military strength required to garrison the empire. He reintroduced conscription by the drawing of lots. These levies were not used to create new legions but rather to augment those already in existence. Augustus also concentrated a third of his strength, eight legions, on the Rhine under his stepson Tiberius, who conducted punitive operations in Germany during 10–12 CE. Germanicus Caesar also campaigned there with four legions during 14–16 CE but made no real attempt at conquest and occupation.
Augustus abandoned plans for a German province between the Rhine and Elbe, thereby fixing Rome’s northern boundary on the Rhine and Danube rivers. Northcentral and Northeastern Europe would not be brought within Latin cultural and legal systems for several hundred years and then only as an enhancement rather than a replacement. Subsequent German leaders, including the Nazis, exploited the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest to build national consciousness and unity, presenting it as an example of Germans defending their “freedom” against foreign invasion.
Murdoch, Adrian. Rome’s Greatest Defeat: Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest. Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Sutton, 2006.
Schlüter, W. “The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest: Archaelogical Research at Kalkriese near Osnabrück.” Journal of Roman Archaeology, Supp. 32 (1999): 125–159.
Tacitus. The Annals of Imperial Rome. Translated by Michael Grant. London: Penguin, 1974.