german history

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest
© Pixabay


It is a wet morning in September of either 7 or 9 AD, and the might of Rome is on the move. In response to a series of reports of unrest by their ally Arminius, chieftain of the Cherusci and trained veteran of Roman campaigns, Governer Publius Quinctilius Varus marshals the three powerful legions under his command- the XVII, XVIII and XIX- and heads out from his fortified stronghold and deep into the Teutoburg forests of Germania. Around them trees rise up into the sky, and there is a fine rain falling, coating the forest in that dreamy quality reminiscent of fairy tales. His men are of good spirit- some have brought along their wives or merchants- to show them the unstoppable power of the legions when brought to bear against inferior forces. It will be a glorious march, and at the end a vicious battle. Nothing the legionnaires had never experienced before. Nothing they had never defeated before. Business as usual.


Varus’ strategy

Varus was following the standard protocol for dealing with instances of unrest. Despite the relative small size of the legions proportional to the population of the Empire, Rome asserted control often through an early form of “shock and awe.” Mobilize the largest force it could, march straight into the offending region, and completely slaughter whomever was challenging the sovereign right of Roman rule. This is how Rome maintained control, how she gave experience to her career soldiers, and how she funded her military forces in times of peace and consolidation. And, with a few exceptions, it worked wondrously.


The special Features of the Teutoburg Forest

The legions moved slowly, almost single file, through the forest, their supply train trailing far behind them. Bird called to one another. Animals cleared a path. The legionnaires laughed and joked as they made their way into the forest at Teutoburg Wald. Sure the rain was becoming annoying, and the constant pressure to keep marching was uncomfortable at best, but these were skilled fighters, a true career force, and such nuisances were just that- nuisances. Even when the heaven opened up several days into the march, and soaked through them, loosening straps and adding undue weight to their armor and shields, the warriors kept pace, moving ever further into the forests. The mighty legions were on edge, growing anxious, but nothing more. Nothing they were not trained for, or at least that was the general line of thought.


Arminius makes his cunning move

When Arminius took his men and rode off ahead to “clear the forest” for Varus and his legions, they were already sapped by fatigue. Trusting their Germanic allies, the column slowed to a crawl, stuck in both literal and mental mud. The thousands of German warriors moving off ahead might have seemed like a relief, perhaps a lucky moment of rest for the Romans.

What happened next might be obvious to us, aware of its place in history. But for the arrogant Varus and his men, it was a surprise on the same level as the Parthian massacre at Carrhae, when the equally arrogant General Crassus made the same mistakes for the same reasons, and ended up with the same outcome.


The Cherusci attack

The Teutoburg forest came alive with the battle cries of the Cherusci and their allied tribes. Up and down the column, German warriors poured from the trees and tore into unprotected Roman flanks. Unable to form up into a battle position, and missing pieces of armor and arms that had become ungainly due to the rain, the Roman legions buckled, with some fleeing into the trees, and right into the arms of the waiting “barbarians.” As death spread, and blood was shed, the legions broke and ran, eager to put distance between themselves and the attackers, for some open ground to fall back to a defensive stance, and maybe salvage the remainder of the expected battle.


The Legions fall apart

But this was not to be. Alone in the forest, with enemies flooding from all sides, Varus made the decision to press forward still, leaving behind supplies, wounded legionnaires, and noncombatants in a fortified campsite. The position would be lost by nightfall, and the proud tribesman would remain on his tail. For days the massacre continued as the energized and enthusiastic tribes meted out their frustrations and their anger on the Romans who had mistreated them, and ultimately underestimated their strength. They picked off column after column, harassing the soldiers who were unable to bring their tactics to bear, tactics Arminius was well versed in himself. The legions split, with some finding sanctuary in a small fort, but with most cut off and eventually wiped out.


Varus’ end in the Teutoburg forest

Who can say what Varus was thinking in those moments before his position was overrun, and he committed suicide rather than fall to his “allies” in the forest of Teutoburg. Did he reflect on how gullible he had been to trust a man who was native to the province and skilled in both terrain and tactics? Did he regret his treatment of the local people, who had joined Rome through reputation, but he treated as conquered subjects? Did he question his own abilities as a soldier, politician, and governor, and how all this had failed because he had never stopped to think about what he was doing and how he was doing it? Or did he curse the forests and their unending stream of warriors that defeated three of Rome’s finest legions?


The Consequences for the Roman Empire

This we will never know. But on that day in Teutoburg Wald, Rome suffered a blow to its pride that would take years to avenge, and a wound that never quite healed. It forced Rome, the principle power of its day, to pull back its expansion and set a solid border along the Rhine river. It exposed the folly of overconfidence, and the value of respect. And it was reminded that despite its power and reach, the determination of people can have far-reaching consequences to the arrogant and unprepared.

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest
german history

Germania – Germany during the Roman Empire

Germania - Germany during the Roman Empire
© Pixabay

The Relationship between Rome and Germania

When we typically think of relations between Rome and the Germanic peoples across the Rhine, it tends to be colored by warfare, conquests, and the eventual fall of the western empire around the fifth century. Popular media and popular thought tends to depict those Germanic tribesman first as literal tribesman, complete with animal skins and a bestial mentality, and more as a rampaging horde that trampled science and progress beneath its heels as the more “progressive” people were driven out of their homes and cities.

Germania as a Roman Province

So I suppose it might come as a surprise when I tell you that there was once a point where Germania was a roman province. And that they welcomed the empire with open arms into their forests and lands. They fought in the Roman armies. And they accepted Roman learning and culture, at least for a time. Sound out of place? Well it definitely was, and this period of Roman expansion into what is now modern-day Belgium, Luxembourg, and North Rhine Westphalia was equal parts experiment and expansion, and set the stage for the collapse of the powerful empire centuries later.

The Beginning of the Roman Germanic Connection

Roman concerns with Germania stretch all the way back to Julius Caesar, who spent quite a bit of time exploring and beating up people who weren’t like him. The term Germania itself (which may or may not have been directly used by Caesar) was used more as a catchall for the collectives of people who lived beyond the Roman borders on the Rhine, the Germani cisrhenani– literally “this side of the Rhine.” These peoples included the Teutonics, the Cherusci, the Seubi, the Chatti, the Goths, and a bunch of other colorful names, and possessed their own diverse culture. They were often considered by the Romans to be relations to the Gauls who emigrated into Rome, but over time assumed a sense of “othering” that would set them apart from the Empire to their east and south.

Now Julius (and later his nephew Augustus) saw these peoples are a further source of income and land. The Roman legions were famous for using warfare to generate profit, and would conquer and assimilate outside peoples for financial, as well as tactical, advantage. And these Germani cisrhenani were seen no differently. Starting as early as 12 BC, Augustus began a series of campaigns to defeat the tribes and unite all of Germania into a single province, Germania Magna, much as his uncle had desired to do. So one by one, the armies of Rome began to defeat the tribes and bring them to heel.

Germanian Tribes which joined the Empire

Historian Bill Fawcett, when exploring Roman Germania, brings up a very interesting point right about now. While Germania was the subject of limited military conquest by Rome, as it was not a single, unified political entity, there were a fair number of tribes that simply joined Rome entirely due to the Empire’s reputation. While Germanicus and Tiberius were busy wiping out those that resisted Roman incursion, tribes like the Cherusci were more than willing to “sign on” to the Roman way of life, even taking part in sending their young men to Rome as hostages, where they would be educated as Romans, with some even serving in the legions and becoming citizens in their own right.

As the timeline shifted over, and BC became AD, Germania became a rough province governed by Publius Quinctilius Varus, former Governor of both Africa and Syria, and all-around politician from a political family. Upon receiving an assignment from Rome to govern this new province, Varus took three legions and his own Roman arrogance across the Rhine and set up shop in these new lands, where he proceeded to levy taxes and run his “kingdom” like he had run both Africa and Syria.

Varus’ misscalculation

This would be a mistake, and one that Varus wouldn’t fully understand until his death several years later. Fawcett points to his distinctly Roman style of governance as leading to his downfall- he treated the Germanic people in his province as subjugated foes, a common Roman practice in provinces that had been beaten down by force. Rome comes in, Rome defeats your military, Rome upends your government, and you pay taxes for the privilege of being conquered. This is how it had worked when Varus was in Africa. This was how it worked when Varus was in Syria. This was one of the staples of the Roman economic machine, which allowed it to grow as large as it did.

Unfortunately, much of Varus’ “court” was comprised of Germani who had willingly allied with Rome. People who has joined the Roman cause because they either did not want to be wiped out, or because they saw Rome as the future and wanted to be part of such a storied, and respected, Empire. The chieftain of the Cherusci, Arminius, was himself a naturalized Roman citizen who had grown up in the Empire and learned a great deal about their way of life. He had fought for Rome, and now was being treated by Varus as if he were less than human, there only for Rome’s treasury and nothing more.

Mix the pride of the Germani in with this blatant mistreatment by a career politician, and you can only imagine what comes next: The disastrous defeat at Teutoberg Wald. Tune in next week to see how badly that turned out.

Germania - Germany during the Roman Empire