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The Battle of Teutoburg Forest

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest took place in the year 9 AD, and it's a battle that keeps historians busy to this day. By employing smart tactics, using the weather and environmental conditions to their advantage, and not least through treason, a bellicose group of Teutonic tribes annihilated three legions of the highly disciplined army of the Roman Empire.

The Roman legions were feared for their discipline, their heavy weaponry, and their sophisticated, well-trained battle formations. In contrast, the Teutonic group of warriors knew nothing of the Roman legions' discipline. This makes the success of the Teutonic tribes in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest even more remarkable: A loose alliance of Teutonic warriors under the leadership of Arminius achieved victory over three battle-hardened legions of the Roman Empire.

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The Background

Sixty years after Cesar defeated the Gaul tribes and conquered all of Gaul for Rome (all of Gaul? Yes, all of Gaul), Rome was changed beyond recognition. Following a civil war, the republic became an empire. The senate was deprived of its former power and under Emperor Augustus, Rome's rule reached from the European Atlantic coast all the way to the Black Sea, and from the Channel and the North Sea to Africa, north of the Sahara Desert and down the River Nile to what is today called Sudan.

In the north, the Roman sphere of influence extended across northern Germania, from the River Rhine to the mouth of the Elbe. While Augustus viewed the land as a Roman province, many Teutonic tribes in the area only succumbed to the Roman claim of power reluctantly. Some tribes defied Roman rule, while others, like the Cherusci, accepted Rome's claim and sent children of their aristocracy to Rome as hostages.

The expanse of the Roman Empire in 9 AD
Under the reign of Augustus, the Roman Empire stretched into northern Germania in the year 9 AD.

This allowed the conquered territories to become familiar with the Roman way of life, to demonstrate Rome's power and eventually, to integrate the new land into the empire. The hostages received training and jobs in the Roman army, and were able to attain glory and status. Young Arminius, son of Seginer, a chieftain of the Cherusci, who lived in the middle reaches of the River Weser, also followed this path.

To enhance Rome's influence in Germania, assert the empire's claim over the territory, and of course to fill the Roman state's coffers, Emperor Augustus sent his experienced public administrator Publius Quintillius Varus. By his side, Arminius was tasked with advising the commander, patrolling the area, and negotiating with the native population.

Already during his previous posts in what are today Egypt and Syria, Varus proved himself to be an efficient, yet cruel administrator of the regions under his management. His job now was to turn Germania Magna into a real Roman province and he pursued that task with an iron fist. Arminius accompanied him as an adviser familiar with the territory. He was raised in the Roman way and had made a career for himself in the legion. He was a cavalier (eques) and led a troop of riders; this meant he had the highest rank in the Roman military that a non-Roman could achieve. Varus seemed to have trusted the Teuton – a mistake that eventually would cost his head.

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What finally led Arminius to his actions can no longer be ascertained: A revolt against the cruel treatment by Rome could have been the reason, as much as the hope for glory, power, and a career among the Teutonic tribes. What is clear is that Arminius lured his commander and superior into a deadly trap.

Arminius must have planned this battle and coordinated the huge number of warriors well in advance, since the Teutons were not known for maintaining standing armies. It seems likely that he negotiated with the different tribes during all of his expeditions to organize the ambush. This didn't occur without mistakes:

Roman sources report that the Teutonic tribal chief Segestes had warned Varus about the sinister plans of his leading scout. Varus didn't believe any of this. He thought this to be an intrigue between Teutonic chiefs. It wasn't a far-fetched thought, since Arminius was Segestes' son-in-law. But the marriage between him and Segestes' daughter, Thusnelda, took place without the consent of the bride's father.

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The Commanders

Leader of the Teutons Arminius – Herrmann the Cherusci

Name: Birth name unknown, Roman name: Gaius Iulius Arminius, German name: Herrmann the Cherusci

Age: Unknown at the time of the battle; estimated to be between 25 and 29.

Descent: Son of Segimer, respected chieftain of the Cherusci

Experience: Roman upbringing, eventually joining the rank of a cavalier (highest possible rank for non-citizens)

Death: Commander of the Cherusci against Rome and other Teutonic tribes for many years after the battle. Eventually murdered by relatives more than ten years after the Battle of Teutoburg Forest.

Armed forces: 10,000 to 12,000 warriors of the Cherusci, Bructeri, Marsi, and other tribes.

Leader of the Roman Army Varus

Name: Publius Quintillius Varus

Age: Around 50 years at the time of battle, born 47 or 46 BC.

Descent: Son of an old Roman aristocratic family, who had lost their political influence a long time ago.

Experience: Following a career in administration, Varus was sent to what are today Egypt and Libya as a consul and governor.

Death: Suicide in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. A Roman historian said that he had shown more courage in death than in battle.

Armed forces: XVII., XVIII. and XIX. legion with auxiliary troops, cavalry, and archers; 20,000 to 30,000 strong.

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The Troops


On the Teutonic side, 10,000 to 12,000 warriors fought from the Cherusci, Bructeri, and Marsi tribes. Most likely, other tribes were also involved, but it's not certain which ones those were.

The Teutonic tribal warriors were mostly simple peasants who joined the fight with their chieftains and noblemen for raids and war campaigns.

Their weapons were mostly spears, clubs, and axes. Swords were rare among the simple warriors, as only few could afford an expensive weapon made almost entirely from metal.

Their clothing were usually everyday clothes and only basic wooden shields and possibly leather armor offered some protection.

Only the Teutonic aristocracy could afford elaborate metal armor such as helmets, chain mail, and metal shields. Swords, too, were mostly reserved for the aristocratic leaders of the tribes. They usually had a long sword and wore a shirt of chain mail.

Roman Legions

The Romans ordered their XVII. XVIII. and XIX. legion to march. A legion usually consisted of 5,000 heavy infantry, additional auxiliary troops on foot, the cohorts, and the Alae on horseback. Arminius himself was probably the commander of one Ala, a Teutonic group of riders.

The core of the Roman troops were the empire's legionnaires. The heavy infantry consisted of highly trained and well-equipped Roman citizens.

Their weaponry included the gladius, a short sword, as well as a large shield, the scutum. Additionally, they carried a light throwing spear and a heavier striking spear with them in battle.

Their thorough training and battle experience as professional soldiers made the legionnaires the most powerful army of the time.

Equipped with a spear, shield, and long sword (the spatha), the Roman cavalry was equal to the legionnaires in both training and fighting strength.

Non-Romans were also accepted as auxiliary troops. They were usually made up of members of subjugated tribes traditionally trained in fighting on horseback, like the Thracians, Iberians, Gauls, and Teutons.

Non-Romans, former slaves, and criminals could only serve as auxiliary troops. The Roman legions were regularly supported by these kinds of infantry units, the cohorts.

These supporting troops had the same military structure as the legions themselves, were armed equally well but usually carried less armor.

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The Battle

In the year 9 AD, Varus left the fortified Roman camps near Haltern with three legions and moved into the area between the Rhine and Elbe to explore the territory, negotiate treaties, intimidate the tribes, and levy taxes – to put it bluntly, to assert the Roman Empire's power in the region. During this time, Arminius must have had close contact with the Teutons in the region, in order to forge an alliance against the Romans and prepare an ambush.

In the fall, just as the legions were on their way back to the winter camps, a message about an uprising in the north reached Varus, causing him to make a fatal decision. He sent his supply retinue with the siege equipment and supporting units ahead to the winter camps, while he marched north-west with his legions, just as the Teutonic scouts suggested. This led him directly into the trap Arminius had prepared for him.

Where did they fight?

Assumed location of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, Kalkriese
Based on artifacts found, the region around Kalkriese is today seen as the most likely place where the Battle of Teutoburg Forest took place.

It is still not clear where exactly this battle took place. Clear traces have been found in Kalkriese near the German city of Osnabrück. There, pits filled with bones, weapon parts, and Roman coins were found, with the most recently minted coins from the year 9 AD. So it is quite certain that the Romans fought there and that the battle took place in 9 AD or later. However, the bones that have been discovered can only be attributed to 17 individuals – too few for the ultimate battle of the legions. It therefore remains unclear whether a skirmish in the downfall of Varus' three legions or a battle during a later expedition took place here.

The legions' path led through difficult territory. Thick forests and swamps with many narrow points meant the soldiers had to give up on their marching formation. The convoy of soldiers extended over multiple kilometers and the dense forest prevented the convoy from protecting its flanks. Heavy rainfall also slowed them down.

Attacks lasting for days

Then the attacks began. Teutons attacked different parts of the column from the protection of the forests, only to then quickly pull back. The Romans had no time to set up their battle formation and use their tactical advantage. The heavy weaponry and armor even proved to be a disadvantage in this adverse weather and territory, as they restricted the soldiers' movement. Yet, the Romans managed to reach fortified night camps in the first days of the attacks and escape at least briefly.

For days, the legions were kept busy by repeat guerrilla attacks without being able to put up an effective defense. In these conditions, the legions were not even able to fortify their night camps towards the end. The Teutons even diverted streams, dug ditches, and prepared simple fortifications with clay and wood to impede the legions' march.

Progression of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest
It's believed that the deciding battle took place near Kalkriese after three days of constant attacks.

Findings of bones, tools, and weapon parts near the Kalkriese Hill near Bramsche suggest that combat outside the main battle might have taken place here. Besides Roman sword fittings and sling stones, a metal face mask that was part of a Roman cavalry helmet was also found. Remains of fortifications that could have been erected for the battles were also discovered here. Despite all the information available, a detailed reconstruction of the fighting is no longer possible today.

Trapped between forests, fortifications, and a large swamp to the north, the Romans had almost no chance to flee. After three days, the legions must have been worn down and dispersed, and that is when the final battle must have taken place. To avoid the disgrace of being captured, Varus committed suicide. Three legions, three cavalry divisions, and three infantry cohorts, around 20,000 soldiers altogether, were wiped out and killed. Hardly a single Roman was able to escape the massacre.

A Roman historian said that,
with his suicide, Varus showed more courage to die than to fight.
– Velleius Paterculus: Historia Romana II 117–119

The Teutons mercilessly slaughtered the soldiers. Captives were executed and thrown into murder pits. Their officers, often together with their weapons and animals, were sacrificed to the Teutonic gods. Even years after the battle, Roman soldiers found scattered debris of former carts, destroyed equipment, and many corpses, which they buried in mass graves.

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The Aftermath

Reports of defeat left Rome in a state of shock. A group of illiterate barbarians annihilated a full three legions of the glorious Roman Empire. A tremendous blow that hit Rome at a time when its military was already thinly stretched due to uprisings in the Balkans and other parts of the empire. The three destroyed legions were not formed again, but found their true end in the forests and swamps of northern Germany.

Rome also reconsidered its practice of forming complete auxiliary units with members of defeated tribes and deploying them in their native regions. Later, Augustus began recruiting auxiliary units only from among former criminals and slaves, and even went as far as buying slaves only to let them free and have them serve as support units in the army.

The revenge of Germanicus?

Rome didn't give up on Germania though. In the following years, other Roman commanders, like Germanicus, again started campaigns in Germania Magna, thereby also crossing the River Elbe. But Rome was not successful in establishing its rule in the north of Germania or to establish permanent settlements. Among others, this victory meant that northern Europe would remain free of Roman cultural influence, but also from its technical and civilizing achievements.

This defeat and the Teutonic victory also lay the foundation of the national heroic tales of the 18th and 19th century, to which German romanticists ascribe an identity-establishing effect. Hermann the Cherusci is said to have defended Germania's freedom in the Teutoburg Forest and with it, secured the independence of future Germans. Arminius' treacherous deceit that abused the trust of his superior and affable mentor and led to his death, was later rewritten into an epochal heroic act.

Allegedly, Emperor Augustus complained upon hearing news of the defeat:
"Varus, give me back my legions!" (Sueton, de vitae caesarum)
– Emperor Augustus
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