- James Houser
9 AD - The Battle of the Teutoberg Forest
Updated: Feb 26
September, 9 A.D. Even Rome has limits. In the deep, dark Teutoburg Forest of barbarian Germany, the three Roman legions of Publius Varus run into an epic ambush by the local tribesmen. The resulting catastrophe drives the aging Emperor Augustus into fits of mourning and fury, marks a permanent end to Rome’s expansion to the north, and goes into legend as one of the great military disasters of history.
It was the greatest empire the world had ever seen. Augustus Caesar, the man who had once been Octavian, ruled a realm stretching from Spain and Morocco in the west to Syria and Armenia in the east. Egypt, Greece, Italy, and even the wild barbarian regions of Gaul were under the Roman sway. The only areas of concern were the still-unconquered landmass of Britannia to the northwest, and the dark, mysterious lands north of the Alps and east of the Rhine. The Romans called this land “Germania.”
Although Julius Caesar had conquered Gaul (that is, Belgium and France) for Rome in the 50s BC, he had only made a couple of forays across the Rhine into Germania, mainly as a show of force. He had left small garrisons along the river to watch the main crossing sites, and this was the border Augustus Caesar inherited when he rose to power in 27 BC. Augustus was a military dictator – no way around it – and part of his success relied on the aura of military glory. With peace governing the eastern border with Parthia, soon Augustus started to look to Germania for his new source of military victory to bolster his regime – which, to be honest, was super successful and not going anywhere anytime soon.
The Germanic tribes were seminomadic, warlike peoples that constantly raided across the Rhine and down the North Sea coast into Gaul. Wildly diverse and beholden to no master stronger than the local war chief, they ranged from the Frisian tribe in the north near the modern Netherlands down to the Marcomanni in modern Austria. Their division was deceptive, however; they were capable of unifying into a powerful force when motivated by a strong leader or foreign invasion – as the Romans would discover to their peril.
Nevertheless, the first Roman expeditions into Germania started in 12 BC, and soon Augustus’ stepson and future Roman Emperor Tiberius was leading yearly expeditions over the Rhine. The Romans began building legionary camps and staying over the winter after their victories, and year after year they gained military control over more territory. By AD 6, they were convinced that Germania had been pacified. They still maintained three legions within the territory, but reports convinced Emperor Augustus that the heavy lifting was done. He ordered Tiberius south to put down some revolts in the Balkans, which left the three legions in Germany under a new commander: Publius Quinctilius Varus.
The problem for the Romans was that Germania was unlike any territory they had ever conquered. Unlike the urbanized east, or Gaul and Spain with their cities and large towns, the Germans had no urban centers to capture and use as bases. Thus, Romans could defeat individual tribes and force them to submit, but had no ready-made administrative centers or systems of government to assume control of. They had to build it from scratch. Still, after almost two decades of military defeat, the Germans seemed to have accepted the Romans as something like a stronger tribal power, not as overlords. This was a balance that more subtle Roman administrators like Tiberius managed to stick to.
This changed with the arrival of Varus in AD 9. Despite his later historical reputation, Publius Q. Varus had a very successful career up until his arrival in Germania. He had led the conquest of multiple Alpine regions in modern Switzerland/Austria. He had also been a very competent governor of Syria, one of the most challenging appointments in the Empire, where he negotiated a peaceful solution to a succession crisis in Judaea around 4 BC. Depending on which sources you talk to, Varus was either a capable soldier and able diplomat (Jewish historian Flavius Josephus) or a corrupt and brutal leader (contemporary author Velleius Paterculus). Either way, Varus had impressed the Emperor’s family enough that he married a distant cousin, and this made him an obvious choice for a new thorny issue up north in Germania.
Varus proceeded to screw things up every step of the way. He governed Germania the same way he had governed Africa and Syria: that is, as a conquered province, levying taxes and enforcing Roman law. This was both ineffective and insulting to the locals, since there was no bureaucratic establishment in the German provinces to levy those taxes. The Germans were a metal-poor society, and hard coin was difficult to come by and not easily paid. The Roman demand for taxes went hand-in-hand with Varus’ ostentatious display of Roman might, and the legions spent most of AD 9 roaming Germania collecting taxes.
At least, that’s the narrative. Many later historians have lambasted Varus as a military incompetent and unthinking thug who brutalized the Germans into rejecting him, and this is often the thread of most histories written on the Teutoburg disaster. On the other hand, Augustus chose him for his political ability: not to impose Roman ways, but to enforce the status quo of alliance in a complicated and tense atmosphere. Given the growing hostility of the Germans to their Latin overlords, it could honestly be asked whether any other governor could have avoided the disaster that was coming – especially with the voice whispering in his ear.
That voice was the other figure of today’s story. Arminius (the Latinized version, his Germanic name was “Hermann”) was a young noble of the Cherusci tribe. Like so many other Germans of this era, he had hired himself out as an auxiliary in Roman service, done time in the legions, and distinguished himself. He had even been given Roman citizenship and the minor noble title of *equestrian* for his Roman service in the Balkans. Unusually, though, Roman citizenship and civilization impressed Arminius little. What it did do was teach him how Rome made war, and how they eventually treated the peoples they conquered. When Arminius returned to Germany as an officer on Varus’ staff, he was determined to overthrow the Roman administration and restore freedom to his land – even if he had to do it from the inside.
Arminius had a large population of disgruntled Germans to draw on, but also faced disputes within his own tribe. These are too dramatic and arcane to get into here, but they made Arminius some enemies, including his father-in-law Segestes. Segestes tried to warn Varus that his trusted Germanic staff officer was really plotting a rebellion, but Varus refused to believe it. Arminius was a paragon of Roman loyalty!
Arminius bent over backwards to hold Varus’ trust, assisting him in his duties as governor of Germania. He brought tribal leaders to Varus so he could settle their disputes, flattering the Roman general and proving to him Arminius’s devotion to Roman order. Arminius continued to remain Varus’s right-hand man, providing him with reliable information about the Germanic tribes. Even as the warnings about Arminius’ true intentions piled up, Varus was able to dismiss these ominous signs as the fruit of Arminius’ jealous and untrustworthy enemies.
Thus it was that when Varus prepared to wrap things up for the year and lead his legions to winter quarters on the Rhine, he had no qualms about leaving the planning to his trusted aide. As the autumn approached, Arminius began to lay his trap. He orchestrated a small number of rebellions in the thick, wooded regions of modern Lower Saxony, then convinced Varus to alter his route back to the Rhine in order to suppress these uprisings. Varus agreed; this move would certainly take little effort, and would once again accomplish the goal of displaying Roman might.
Varus set out for his return march with three legions, around 15,000 to 18,000 men, all hardened veterans of the Germanic wars. They were inevitably accompanied by around 10,000 camp followers – the soldiers’ women and children, tradespeople, supporting civilians – that always went with the Roman forces. This meant that the solid armored infantrymen of the legions were also burdened with protecting the civilians, which is never a situation you want to be in during a chaotic battle. But the Romans did not expect a battle.
The route Arminius chose wound into the craggy, low mountains of Westphalia, today near the German cities of Osnabruck and Munster, through a dense forest known as the Teutoburger Wold. Once the column was under way at the beginning of September, 9 AD, Arminius left them behind to “scout ahead.” Varus and his legions marched down the path Arminius had laid out, as the German rode ahead into the wilderness.
Arminius, of course, had the Romans exactly where he wanted them. Once free of Varus’ watchful eye, the Roman governor’s most trusted assistant linked up with the force he had been recruiting this whole time – some 20,000 to 30,000 Germanic warriors, drawn from across the region. It is hard to determine his exact numbers, since there is literally no such thing as a contemporary German account.
Exactly where the fighting took place was a mystery for a long time, and there were several hundred theories for years. Roman sources such as Tacitus and Cassius Dio significantly postdate the battle, and their accounts are pieced together from the handful of survivors and the later punitive expeditions of Germanicus. Late 20th-century research by amateur archaeologists found old Roman coins and leaden sling bolts north of Osnabruck at Kalkriese Hill, and by 1990 there was a full-scale excavation going on which uncovered more remains, including a Roman officer’s face-mask. This was at least part of the battlefield, but smaller battle sites have been described and it is likely that the battle occurred over quite a large area.
What is clear is that Varus’s route was both forested and rugged, full of narrow paths where traditional Roman legionary tactics could not be used. The weather also worked against the Romans, as high winds and heavy rains made footing treacherous and visibility scarce. The pace of the advance, slowed by the civilian wagons and by the deteriorating conditions, slowed Varus’ advance through the Teutoberg Forest to a crawl. After the Roman column was fully emeshed and could no longer escape, Arminius unleashed his German followers.
The Germans, lightly armed with short spears, harassed the column constantly, never fighting a stand-up battle but only engaging in areas where they could achieve overwhelming superiority. When the Romans emerged into a clearing later on the first day, Varus established a fortified camp, a traditional Roman practice that had served them well; they built their usual fieldworks, barricades and ditches, and challenged the Germans to attack. This Arminius did not allow them to do, since he had learned too well what happened to barbarians that attacked a Roman camp. The legions could hold that position indefinitely, and would ruin his German army. Instead, he would wait them out. They couldn’t stay there forever.
Varus ordered his wagons burned the next morning, hoping it would speed his advance, but this had little effect. As soon as they were out of their fieldworks and back into the woods, Arminius struck again, and this time the demoralized Roman column began to break apart. Lost in an unfamiliar, foreign land, the Roman soldiers faced men who had grown up in these hills and knew every ravine, every cliff, every landmark. Arminius directed the Germans to the weak points of the Roman column, and soon the Roman column was stretched out over a perilously long distance, constantly ambushed and pelted with javelins and stones. Varus and his legions suffered heavy losses as the torrential rains continued.
Finally, Varus ordered a full-fledged breakout through the night, but ran into Arminius’ final trap – possibly at the foot of Kalkriese Hill, where a British vacationer with a metal detector found Roman coins, and archaeologists found the Roman officer’s helmet. Here, the Romans were forced to march on a sandy, open strip isolated in the middle of a bog. When the head of the column proceeded through this swamp, they found the road blocked by a trench, and the Germans fortified behind an earthen wall. As the Romans tried and failed to break this barricade, order finally disintegrated.
Pinned like rats in a hole, it became every man for himself. The Roman cavalry abandoned their fellow soldiers and tried to escape on their own, but were soon tracked down and slaughtered to a man. As disorder reigned, Arminius ordered his final assault. The Germans swarmed out from the swamp like a great avenging fury and descended on what had once been three Roman legions – the pride of Augustus, the menace of the world, the would-be conquerors of Germania. They were slaughtered. Varus, contrary to later rumor, fought alongside his men until he suffered a serious wound, after which he took his own life.
The Roman disaster was complete. Varus’s force of 15,000 to 20,000 was effectively destroyed, including the camp followers. Only a handful of soldiers escaped, straggling into the Rhine garrisons several days later. According to Tacitus, any Romans that surrendered soon regretted this choice, as the Germans sacrificed them to the gods. The Romans had been completely cleansed from Germania.
This disaster could not go unanswered. Tiberius’ son Drusus Germanicus would lead multiple punitive expeditions over the next five years, during which he managed to recover the standards of the destroyed legions at the site of the disaster. Drusus Germanicus fought several battles against Arminius, who had rearmed his Germans with captured weaponry. This unity among the Germans was not to survive, however; although Arminius could unite them as long as Rome’s threat remained potent, he lacked the power to bring them together for good. Soon the Germans returned to their traditional isolated ways; wary of Arminius’s growing power, the tribal chiefs had him assassinated in 21 AD. There would be no united German kingdom.
Nevertheless, Drusus Germanicus’s expeditions were for vengeance, not reconquest. Augustus Caesar had been shocked by the defeat, and his last few years of rule were embittered by this catastrophic failure after four decades of unbroken success. According to one historian, he was so shaken that he banged his head on the walls of the Imperial palace, shouting “Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!” (But that was written by Suetonius, and it seems like the sort of melodramatic thing he would write.) This incident, above all, caused Augustus to refrain from further conquests, and at his death he warned all his successors not to expand the Roman Empire any further.
And…this was mostly followed. Sure, the Romans would conquer Britain in a few decades, and the border would shift back and forth here and there, but the age of unstoppable Roman expansion was at an end. The Romans would never again attempt to conquer Germany. Central and Eastern Europe would never pass under the rod of the Roman Empire. Unlatinized, the German and Slavic cultures would survive without significant foreign interference well into the present day.
The Roman Empire had suffered its first major setback in centuries, the legions that had been victorious from Spain to Syria unable to subdue a few forest tribes. For this feat, Arminius has come to symbolize a certain vision of German nationalism, especially starting from the 19th Century – even though he never really did unify the tribes. Regardless, he defeated the Empire at the height of its power, and that – if nothing else – cements his place in history.
Note: the German words for this battle are "Varusschlacht" or "Hermannschlacht" - literally, the Varus Battle or the Arminius Battle. They're just fun words to say. German always sounds just a little ominous, no? I imagine Varus thought so.