After more than 2,000 years, it is interesting how some Germans—mainly the older generation—still revere the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest, which took place in 9 AD, during the reign of Caesar Augustus. The battle was between a Germanic prince named Arminius, who had secretly forged an alliance of five Germanic tribes that had traditionally been enemies (out of about fifty extant at that time), and the 17th, 18th, and 19th legions (between 15,000 and 20,000 men), six cohorts of auxiliary troops (480 men each of non-citizens or allied troops), and three squadrons of cavalry under Publius Quinctilius Varus.
The battle was basically an unrelenting three-day-and-night ambush of the Roman army by the German tribesmen, resulting in the Romans’ total annihilation; but the backstory is in many ways more interesting than the battle itself.
This is not to minimize the significance of the battle; it is generally regarded by modern historians as the most crushing defeat the Roman army ever suffered, and it effectively ended Rome’s expansion of its empire east of the Rhine for all time. The three legions that were wiped out were never reconstituted after Teutoburg. It is a permanent blight on ancient Rome’s history, and subsequently inspired countless insurrections after others discovered that the legions were not invincible, after all.
On the Roman side, Varus was a poor choice as a commander. Although he was well-regarded by the Senate, his reputation derived from the fact that he was trained as a lawyer (what else?) and from his governorship of Syria, where he was known for levying high taxes and administering a harsh rule. For example, after occupying Jerusalem, he crucified 2,000 Jewish rebels, which was probably one of the prime causes of anti-Roman sentiment in Judaea. Yet he had married a grand-niece of Augustus and was considered trustworthy. But he was not a trained military commander, and leading up to Teutoburg, Varus committed a number of mistakes no military man would have made.
On the German side, the story is even more instructive. Arminius was a son of the Cheruscan chief Segimer, who sent his son to Rome to live as a hostage insuring peaceful relations. While there, Arminius obviously learned to keep his true feelings to himself, received a military education, obtained Roman citizenship, the status of equestrian (petty noble), and command of a Cheruscan detachment of Roman auxiliary forces stationed in the Balkans. When Varus was assigned the governorship of the German provinces, Arminius was reassigned to Varus, presumably for his knowledge of the German tribes.
Varus’ first mistake was that he found it inconceivable that the German tribes would not want to submit to Roman rule and discipline. In reality, the Germans were extremely independent and committed to maintaining their freedom. He took false comfort that organizing the German tribes was akin to herding cats; he had absolutely no idea that Arminius was in fact doing an effective but secret job of lining up opposition to Varus and his severe style of leadership.
As Varus was preparing to move his troops from his summer camp west of the Weser River to winter headquarters near the Rhine, he heard reports of a local rebellion, reports which had been fabricated by Arminius. As Edward Creasy wrote in Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World (1851): “This was represented to Varus as an occasion which required his prompt attendance at the spot; but he was kept in studied ignorance of its being part of a concerted national rising; and he still looked on Arminius as his submissive vassal.”
The most direct route to the supposed trouble-spot (suggested by Arminius) took Varus through an unfamiliar forest where the Roman troops would be forced to march in a perilously long line, just a few men abreast, that stretched out between 9 and 12 miles. Normally the legions marched ten men abreast and were able to make defensive maneuvers. But dispersed, interspersed, and separated from one another by camp followers, they were helpless and the head of the column didn’t know what the tail was doing.
Under the pretext of organizing German tribes as allies, Arminius and his auxiliary troops broke away from Varus’ column. In actuality, Arminius organized the ambush, including the construction of wooden and peat ramparts around the choke-points in the woods. On a signal, Varus’ troops came under attack and, over the next three days and nights, were reduced to thousands of corpses which were nailed and deposited to the surrounding tangle of trees.
Upon hearing of the defeat, the Emperor Augustus, according to the Roman historian Suetonius, was so shaken that he stood butting his head against the walls of his palace, repeatedly shouting: “Quintili Vare, legiones redde!” (“Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!”) Varus was so humiliated, he committed suicide.
The legacy of the Germanic victory was resurrected with the recovery of the histories of Tacitus in the 15th century, when the figure of Arminius (now known as “Hermann”—a mistranslation of the name “Armin”), became a symbol of Pan-Germanism. During the Napoleonic Wars, the memory of Teutoburg was revived to equate the invading French and Austro-Hungarian forces with the invading Romans, similarly destined for defeat.
As a symbol nationalism, the Hermannsdenkmal, a monument to Arminius (seen in 1900 at the right), was erected in a forested area near Detmold, believed at that time to be the site of the battle. Paid for largely with private funds, the monument remained unfinished for decades and was not completed until 1875, after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 unified the country.
Since the end of World War II there has been a strong aversion in Germany to celebrations of the nationalistic past, so Teutoburg has not been much mentioned in German textbooks. Only old people still sing the Groove of the Day, a folk song recounting the Teutoburg victory composed in 1847 by Josef Victor von Scheffel. In 2009, commemoration of the battle’s 2,000th anniversary was muted.
Late-20th-century research and excavations were sparked by finds by British amateur archaeologist Major Tony Clunn, who was casually prospecting at Kalkriese Hill with a metal detector in hopes of finding “the odd Roman coin.” He discovered coins from the reign of Augustus (and none later), and some ovoid leaden Roman sling bolts. Kalkriese is a village administratively part of the city of Bramsche, on the north slope fringes of the Wiehen, a ridge-like range of hills in Lower Saxony north of Osnabrück. The site is some 43 miles from Detmold, where the Hermannsdenkmal is located.
Excavations have revealed battle debris along a corridor almost 15 miles from east to west and little more than a mile wide. A long zig-zagging wall of peat and packed sand apparently had been constructed beforehand; concentrations of battle debris before it and a dearth of artifacts behind it testify to the Romans’ inability to breach the Germans’ strong defenses. Human remains appear to corroborate Tacitus’ account of their later burial. As a result, Kalkriese is now believed to be the site of part of the battle, probably its conclusive phase.
Groove of the Day
(When the Romans became naughty)
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