This Day in History: Rome’s Defeat in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest

Two thousand years ago today, one of the most decisive and devastating battles of Roman times was raging at the northern edge of the empire. The Battle of Teutoburg Forest was to have a pivotal effect on Rome’s strategy in central and northern Europe and was probably the deciding factor in keeping the empire’s boundaries not much further north than the Danube for the following four centuries.

Between 10,000 and 20,000 Roman soldiers lost their lives in the battle against Germanic tribes and the circumstances and timing were a hard psychological blow to emperor Augustus back in Rome. The defeat came as a massive shock and set-back at a time when the Roman army seemed to have no equal and was able to conquer with little resistance. However, the alliance of Germanic tribes, led by Arminius, were able to decimate three legions using tactical knowledge of the Teutoburg forest itself, as well as the elements of surprise and knowledge of Roman fighting tactics.

Varus and Arminius

The Romans were lead by Publius Quinctilius Varus, who was on a mission to dominate the Germanic tribes and extend the reaches of the Roman provinces into Magna Germania (an area inhabited by mainly Germanic and Celtic tribes covering much of modern-day Germany, Denmark, Poland and the Czech Republic). Having already gained the provinces of Germania Inferior (covering parts of Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg ) and Germania Superior (Switzerland and Alsace), the emperor Augustus probably saw no reason not to push north-eastwards into Magna Germania as well.

An army of German warriors appeared like ghosts from behind the trees, descended on the Romans and massacred no fewer than three Roman legions

Arminius, despite being born into a Germanic tribe, was educated in Rome and had made a name for himself within the higher echelons of the Roman military. He accompanied Varus as an aide on his mission in Germania. Varus did well to begin with and extended his reach up to the river Elbe. It was September and Varus was leading his army from their Summer camp in northern Germany (possibly near Minden on the Weser river) towards the Winter camp near the Rhine. News reached them of a barbarian uprising some distance away and Varus, directed by Arminius, decided to detour to crush the trouble immediately.

But Varus had been duped the route through the Teutoburg Forest was unknown territory to the Roman army. In the BBC book Ancient Rome(The Rise and Fall of an Empire), Simon Baker dramatises the moment when Arminius’s Germanic army would have attacked: An army of German warriors appeared like ghosts from behind the trees, descended on the Romans and massacred no fewer than three Roman legions.

The Romans were ambushed by the alliance, organised by the duplicitous Arminius (today something of a heroic figure in Germany) and were not ready for battle. The ‘battle’ was more of a series of battles, at different locations and lasting from the 9th to the 11th September. As they were attacked in the forest, the Romans realised what predicament they were in. They were able to form a night camp, but suffered heavy losses when they broke out of it and were attacked several more times as they tried to leave the heavily forested area (according to Dio Cassius heavy rain also hampered them, preventing them from using their bows and arrows). Varus, realising there was little hope of getting out and that he had been fooled into leading his men into the slaughter, committed suicide.

A Psychological Blow to the Roman Empire

The Battle of Teutoburg Forest had a very damaging effect on the aged Augustus, who would have been 71 in 9 AD. Suetonius describes the emperor’s shaken state, saying that he took to continuously bang his head against a door and stopped shaving for several months. There was a swift Roman withdrawal from Magna Germania. The bronze equestrian statue of Augustus pulled from a river in Giessen last month is thought to been discarded as a result of the swift Roman retreat.

The battle, known as Clades Variana in Latin and Varusschlacht in German, is thought to have taken place near Kalkriese, near Osnabrck, although the site is still being debated by scholars. It put a stop to the Roman’s attempts to conquer Magna Germania. Some scholars say this had far reaching effects. It meant that the Germanic tribes of central and northern Europe were not Romanized. They kept their language and culture, which have shaped the languages and nations of modern Europe. Had Varus succeeded in dominating the tribes of Germania, this may also have eliminated the threat of barbarian invasion and attack, which continued to dog the Romans throughout the days of the empire until the final Hun invasions brought an end to the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century.

The Varusschlacht Museum

The 2,000th birthday of this historic battle is passing fairly quietly, but the Varusschlacht Museum at Kalkriese has a permanent exhibition detailing the Battle of Teutoburg Forest (or the Varus Battle as it’s also known). It also has a special exhibition and programme of events this year to mark 2,000 years since the battle. Angela Merkel visited the museum earlier this year and spent some time on the virtual archaeological field making some virtual discoveries from the battle.