Rome’s Great­est De­feat

When Ger­manic war­riors an­ni­hi­lated three Ro­man le­gions in Teu­to­burg For­est in AD 9, the tremors were felt across the em­pire. Ju­lian Humphrys ex­plores the dis­as­ter

History Revealed - - CONTENTS -

How Teu­to­burg For­est de­stroyed the im­age of an in­vin­ci­ble Ro­man army

Rome was in a state of shock. It was AD 9 and word had just reached the city that three vet­eran le­gions un­der Quin­til­ius Varus, rep­re­sent­ing more than a tenth of the en­tire im­pe­rial army, had been wiped out by an al­liance of Ger­manic tribes.

The de­feat was so un­ex­pected and so com­pre­hen­sive that the en­tire em­pire seemed in dan­ger. Ac­cord­ing to the Ro­man his­to­rian Sue­to­nius, Em­peror Au­gus­tus was so shaken by the news that he stood bang­ing his head against the walls of his palace, re­peat­edly shout­ing: “Quin­til­ius Varus, give me back my le­gions!”

Years ear­lier, as the first cen­tury BC ap­proached its end, Au­gus­tus had de­cided that Ger­ma­nia needed to be brought un­der Ro­man con­trol. He may well have hoped to cre­ate a buf­fer by ex­tend­ing Ro­man rule from the Rhine to the Elbe.

A se­ries of cam­paigns, first un­der Drusus and then his brother, the fu­ture Em­peror Tiberius, saw the de­feat of the Ger­manic tribes east of the Rhine and the ex­ten­sion of Ro­man in­flu­ence across much of Ger­ma­nia Magna, as the Ro­mans called the re­gion. The next step would be to ‘Ro­man­ise’ these lands, and Au­gus­tus had just the man for the job: Quin­til­ius Varus, the hus­band of his great-niece.

Varus had been gover­nor of Africa and then Syria, where he had earned a rep­u­ta­tion as a suc­cess­ful ad­min­is­tra­tor and able diplo­mat, and he had done a good job keep­ing a num­ber of client rulers in line. In AD 7, he was made gover­nor of the new Ger­man prov­ince and given com­mand of the XVII, XVIII and XIX in­fantry le­gions, to­gether with cavalry and aux­il­iary units, to con­trol it.

On the face of it, the por­tents were good. There was a thriv­ing cross-bor­der trade, with Ger­man tribes sup­ply­ing food, iron, cat­tle and slaves in ex­change for Ro­man gold, sil­ver and lux­ury goods. Some of the tribes had al­ready pledged al­le­giance to Rome, large num­bers of Ger­manic war­riors had joined the Ro­man army as aux­il­iaries, and many young Ger­man aris­to­crats were serv­ing with the Ro­mans in or­der to gain mil­i­tary ex­pe­ri­ence.


One such man was a 25-year-old prince of the Cher­usci, a Ger­manic tribe from the val­ley of the Weser, near the mod­ern city of Min­den. We don’t know his tribal name, but he was known to the Ro­mans as Ar­minius. He seemed to be a model aux­il­iary. As a child he had been sent as a hostage to Rome to as­sure the tribe’s good be­hav­iour fol­low­ing its de­feat at the hands of Drusus in 8 BC, and dur­ing that time he would have been given the same ed­u­ca­tion as any young Ro­man aris­to­crat. When he came of age, he was made an eques (knight) and given a com­mis­sion as an of­fi­cer of aux­il­iary cavalry. Yet all was not as it seemed. Be­neath the Ger­mans’ ap­par­ent ac­qui­es­cence lurked a sim­mer­ing re­sent­ment to­wards the Ro­mans – a re­sent­ment that Ar­minius felt as bit­terly as any­one. From the mo­ment that Varus ar­rived, Ar­minius be­gan to plan an up­ris­ing against Ro­man rule. He knew full well that in a pitched en­counter his lightly armed war­riors would be no

“It was the per­fect spot for an am­bush”

match for Varus’s ar­moured le­gions. He had to find some­where with ter­rain that both suited his style of fight­ing and would prevent the Ro­mans from form­ing the solid line of bat­tle that had brought them vic­tory so many times be­fore.

The plan he came up with was sim­ple and bril­liant. He would re­port a re­bel­lion in ter­ri­tory that the Ro­mans were un­fa­mil­iar with, per­suade them that they could and should deal with it, and then lead them into a care­fully pre­pared trap.

In AD 9, as Varus and his 15,000 men pre­pared to march west­wards from their sum­mer quar­ters on the River Weser to­wards their per­ma­nent bases near the Rhine for the win­ter, Ar­minius made his move. He ar­ranged for some of his al­lies, prob­a­bly war­riors from the Bruc­teri or An­gri­varii tribes, to at­tack Ro­man bases and work par­ties lo­cated in Cher­us­can ter­ri­tory. Then, when news of the raids reached Varus, Ar­minius ad­vised the Ro­man leader that it would be easy enough to make a short de­tour to chas­tise the re­bel­lious tribes be­fore con­tin­u­ing the march to the Rhine.

An­other Ger­man chief­tain, Segestes, re­peat­edly warned Varus not to trust Ar­minius, but Varus took no no­tice – and so the Ro­man le­gions took the de­tour that would soon lead to their de­struc­tion. Ar­minius was sent ahead with his aux­il­iary cavalry; Varus thought he was go­ing to rally some of his tribes­men to help put down the re­bel­lion.


As Varus’s main force fol­lowed along the paths that snaked through forests, fields and marshes, the long line of le­gionar­ies, aux­il­iaries, camp fol­low­ers and baggage carts be­came dan­ger­ously strung out. To make things worse, the weather was ap­palling.

Writ­ing in the third cen­tury, the his­to­rian Cas­sius Dio de­scribed the plight of Varus’s men. They were, he said, “hav­ing a hard time of it felling trees, build­ing roads, and bridg­ing places that re­quired it ... mean­while, a vi­o­lent rain and wind came up that sep­a­rated them still fur­ther, while the ground, that had be­come slip­pery around the roots and logs, made walk­ing very treach­er­ous for them, and the tops of the trees kept break­ing off and fall­ing down, caus­ing much con­fu­sion.”

It was now that the tribes­men launched the first in a se­ries of hit-and-run at­tacks, dash­ing in to at­tack strag­glers or weak spots in the col­umn, only to fall back to the safety of the for­est as soon as the Ro­mans showed any sign of ef­fec­tive re­sis­tance.

Slowly but surely, the wa­ter­logged Ro­man army was be­ing worn down. The near­est Ro­man base lay at Hal­tern, some 60 miles to the south­west, so Varus pressed on to­wards it. On the third day, he and his ex­hausted le­gions reached the Kalkrieser-Niewed­der Senke, a nar­row cor­ri­dor bounded by a steep hill to the south and an im­pen­e­tra­ble marsh to the north. The pass was some four miles long but less than 200 yards wide – it was the per­fect spot for an am­bush, and Ar­minius knew it. There is ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence here that the Ger­mans built a se­ries of low turf walls and sand ram­parts along the bot­tom of the hill. Not only did these keep the Ger­mans hid­den, they also nar­rowed the path, deny­ing the Ro­mans the space they needed to form up prop­erly into a line of bat­tle. As the bat­tered Ro­man col­umn filed into the pass, it found it­self trapped in a deadly bot­tle­neck from which there was no es­cape. Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal finds also sug­gest that some of the Ro­mans tried to storm the ram­parts, but to no avail. Re­al­is­ing that there was no way out, and know­ing that if he fell into the hands of the Ger­mans his end would be a long and messy one, Varus chose to com­mit sui­cide, fall­ing on his sword in the tra­di­tional Ro­man man­ner. At­tacked from all sides by the tri­umphant Ger­manic war­riors, the re­main­ing sol­diers of Varus’s le­gions were mas­sa­cred.

Only a hand­ful man­aged to es­cape and make their way to safety, and when they did the story they told was shock­ing. As Velleius Pater­cu­lus, a re­tired of­fi­cer who was a con­tem­po­rary of Varus later put it: “An army un­ex­celled in brav­ery, the first of Ro­man armies in dis­ci­pline, in en­ergy, and in ex­pe­ri­ence in the field, through the neg­li­gence of its gen­eral, the per­fidy of the en­emy, and the un­kind­ness of for­tune … was ex­ter­mi­nated al­most to a man by the very en­emy whom it has al­ways slaugh­tered like cat­tle.”


The Ro­man army’s rep­u­ta­tion for in­vin­ci­bil­ity had been com­pletely de­stroyed. As news of the dis­as­ter spread, Ro­man bases in Ger­many were ei­ther hastily aban­doned or over­run. Em­peror Au­gus­tus, fear­ing that Ar­minius might march on Rome it­self, ex­pelled all Ger­mans and Gauls from the city. But Ar­minius’s eyes were firmly fixed on Ger­many. He took Varus’s sev­ered head and had it sent to Maro­bo­duus, an­other pow­er­ful Ger­manic leader, with the of­fer of an an­tiRo­man al­liance. Maro­bo­duus de­clined, send­ing the head to Rome for burial, and re­mained neu­tral through­out the fight­ing that fol­lowed.

Ro­man re­tal­i­a­tion was in­evitable. Im­pe­rial forces on the Rhine were boosted from five le­gions to eight, and Tiberius and later Ger­man­i­cus were or­dered to avenge the de­feat and pu­n­ish Ar­minius. This was eas­ier said than done, for the Cher­us­can chief proved a wily foe.

In AD 15, Ro­man forces un­der Ger­man­i­cus fi­nally re­turned to the Teu­to­burg bat­tle­field,

NO WAY OUT Mod­ern-day re-en­ac­tors recre­ate the failed Ro­man at­tempt to storm the Ger­man ram­part

SWORD SUI­CIDE Varus falls on his blade rather than be taken cap­tive by the Ger­mans

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