The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD was one of the most decisive battles of all time and a major turning point in world history. Germanic tribes orchestrated a successful ambush and annihilated a significant portion of the entire Roman Empires elite fighting forces, resulting in the abandonment of many Roman settlements in the region and solidifying the independence of most of Germany. If the outcome had been reversed, and Germany had been Romanized, it’s almost impossible to imagine a confederation of Germanic tribes conquering the western Roman Empire in the fifth century AD; leading to a radically different Europe from the Middle Ages to the present day, even if the Empire had fallen by different means. The massacre at Teutoburg is likely the reason Germans speak a Germanic language today rather than a Latinized one – French, Spanish, or Italian – and why Britain’s and Americans speak English (a Germanic language).
(We go to the forest on that fateful day for Rome)
It was a September day in 9 AD and a Roman army was marching through northwestern Germany heading westward to put down a rebellion that was afoot in the regions near the Rhine River. The Romans were well on their way to annexing most of Germany into province and the obedience of the regions were to be enforced at the end of a sword, if necessary. The army was commanded by Quinctilius Varus and consisted of 15,000 to 20,000 troops, including Rome’s 17th, 18th, and 19th Legions; Rome’s finest warriors and infantrymen. They were marching through territory alien to them, lead by a trusted guide named Arminius – a Germanic chieftain who had risen through the ranks in the Roman system. Arminius was the one that tipped Varus off about the rebellions and encouraged him to make the trip to put them down; but it was a trap.
For two years, Arminius advised Varus in his labors in Germany, while secretly organizing a massive resistance effort. Having convinced an adequate resistance army, Arminius was ready to make his move. He knew the Romans were too strong to face in open battle, so the Germanic tribes did not openly revolt; they instead convinced Varus of their willingness to cooperate with Rome when he reached their regions. But this was a ruse:
“They received Varus, pretending that they would do all he demanded of them, and thus they drew him far away from the Rhine into the land of the Cherusci, toward the Visurgis, and there by behaving in a most peaceful and friendly manner led him to believe that they would live submissively without the presence of soldiers. Consequently he did not keep his legions together, as was proper in a hostile country, but distributed many of the soldiers to helpless communities, which asked for them for the alleged purpose of guarding various points, arresting robbers, or escorting provision trains.”
This is when the systematic uprising began. They didn’t start in the regions near Varus, instead in the areas far away so he would have to march his men through what was believed to be friendly territory. Meanwhile:
“(The rebels) took charge of their troops, which were already in waiting somewhere, and after the men in each community had put to death the detachments of (Roman) soldiers for which they had previously asked, they came upon Varus in the midst of forests by this time almost impenetrable. And there, at the very moment of revealing themselves as enemies instead of subjects, they wrought great and dire havoc.”
The Romans were fierce, disciplined soldiers; but the narrow, marshy conditions made it was impossible to organize themselves properly. The weather this time of year only compounded their troubles
“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. While the Romans were in such difficulties, the barbarians suddenly surrounded them on all sides at once, coming through the densest thickets, as they were acquainted with the paths. At first they hurled their volleys from a distance; then, as no one defended himself and many were wounded, they approached closer to them, depriving them of the use of their weapons, for they could not handle their bows or their javelins with any success, nor, for that matter, their shields, which were thoroughly soaked. Their opponents, on the other hand, being for the most part lightly equipped, and able to approach and retire freely, suffered less from the storm.
Furthermore, the enemy’s forces had greatly increased, as many of those who had at ﬁrst wavered joined them, largely in the hope of plunder, and thus they could more easily encircle and strike down the Romans, whose ranks were now thinned, many having perished in the earlier fighting.”
Some of the men died rapidly, others lingered on, until it became clear that the situation was hopeless and the officers took their own lives; Varus among them. Word of this sent many of the remaining soldiers scattering into the forest while some remained in lines and attempted to fortify their positions. The attacks came in waves over a couple of days as the rebels attacked and receded into the forest, leaving what was left of the Romans terrified and disoriented. After no more than four days of fighting, most of the 15,000 to 20,000 men were dead or dying; the rest were enslaved.
“Varus met disaster by the same fate and with the same courage as Paulus on the fatal day of Cannae. Never was there slaughter more cruel than took place there in the marshes and woods, never were more intolerable insults inflicted by barbarians, especially those directed against the legal pleaders. They put out the eyes of some of them and cut off the hands of others; they sewed up the mouth of one of them after first cutting out his tongue, which one of the barbarians held in his hand, exclaiming “At last, you viper, you have ceased to hiss.””
Teutoburg Forest is one of the most significant historical turning points in history. Before the battle, Rome was establishing settlements in Germany on the eastern side of the Rhine in preparation for the creation of a Roman Germanic province. Many settlements were built and populated in anticipation of the apparent inevitability of an annexed Germany; only to be entirely abandoned for good after Rome’s defeat in 9 AD. Thanks to Arminius, most of Germany would remain forever free from Roman control.
“The result of this disaster was that the empire, which had not stopped on the shores of the Ocean, was checked on the banks of the Rhine.”
One man’s barbarian is another man’s freedom fighter.
*Roman History (chapters 18-24 of book 56) by Cassius Dio (2nd century AD)