The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, in 9 CE, was one of the most crushing defeats ever suffered by Rome. Three entire Legions were wiped out, and Roman expansion was halted–leading to a cultural divide within Europe that continues to this day.
By the time Augustus Caesar destroyed the Roman Republic and established the Roman Empire, in the first years of the Common Era, the Romans had already been at war in northern Europe for a hundred years. Although the Germanic tribes around the Rhine River had resisted bitterly and had given little ground, around 50 of the local leaders had either surrendered or had voluntarily allied themselves with Rome. To consolidate the new province of Germania and to begin the process of “Romanizing” it and integrating it into the Empire, Augustus sent Publius Quinctilius Varus, a lawyer, to act as governor.
It didn’t take long for Varus to begin making enemies. Characterized as “cruel” and “greedy”, and provided with three full Legions, the 17th, 18th and 19th, to put down rebellions and protect against invasion by hostile neighboring tribes, Varus began treating the Germans as conquered slaves rather than as allies.
One of the people he alienated was Hermann (Latinized as “Arminius”), the chieftain of the Germanic Cherusci tribe. The Cheruscis had been Roman allies for many years: as a boy, Arminius had been sent to Rome to be educated, as part of the policy of “Romanization”. Now, he was one of Varus’s most trusted advisors.
By 9 CE, Varus’s heavy-handed rule had provoked several tribes into open rebellion, and the governor, accompanied by Arminius, led his three Legions (about 15,000 men) deep into Germania to put down the revolts. As the summer campaigning season was ending, the Romans packed up their entire army along with all its thousands of civilian camp-followers and began the long trek back to their winter quarters.
Now, Arminius saw an opportunity. Politically ambitious, he had been secretly working behind the scenes to unite the Germanic tribes against Roman rule. Trained in Roman military tactics, he had also worked himself into a position of influence over Varus, who had no military experience. As the Legions made their way through the heavy forests and bogs of Germania, Arminius realized, they would be extremely vulnerable–stretched out in a long thin column in the dense trees, the Romans would be unable to form up in their disciplined battle groups, and could be broken into scattered groups and attacked. It was the perfect opportunity to destroy the entire Roman military presence in one shattering blow.
Arminius convinced five of the tribes to join the Cherusci in the rebellion. It would be carefully planned to wipe out the entire Roman force in one surprise attack, and Arminius took full advantage of his trusted position with Varus to put the plan into motion. As the Legions and their camp-followers plodded back towards the Roman settlements, Arminius passed a false report to Varus declaring that a number of tribes to the north had begun a rebellion. To meet this supposed threat, the Legions would have to leave their prepared roads and make their way through an area of rough country that included the present-day Teutoburg Forest, where the Germans intended to strike. Varus took the bait.
At this point, the entire plan almost unravelled. Although Arminius had been secretive, word of the planned revolt had spread among the Germans, and some of them were still loyal to the Romans. One Cherusci nobleman, named Segestes, met with Varus in his camp and told him of the whole scheme, including Arminius’s involvement. Varus, in turn, placing his trust in Arminius, dismissed the story as mere political rivalry between the two. The Legions marched north.
Arminius now took his Cherusci auxilliary cavalry troops and left, telling Varus that he was going to get more warriors to help put down the rebellions. In reality, he made his way to the planned ambush point–a place where the trail narrowed between a steep wooded hill on one side and a boggy marsh on the other. Here, Armenius and his men built a low wall across the gap. Once they entered, the Romans would be trapped.
For the next four days, hit-and-run raids were directed at various portions of the Roman column. Confined to the narrow pathways through the woods, Varus’s Legions were stretched out over ten miles, interspersed with hundreds of wagons carrying supplies, equipment, and thousands of civilians. As the attacks continued, Varus at last realized what a vulnerable position he was in, and increased his pace in an attempt to reach safety. The wagons began to fall behind, and were easy targets for the German raiders. Dead Romans littered the woods for miles.
The end came when the Legions unwittingly entered the ambush site and suddenly found themselves surrounded by perhaps 10,000 Germanic warriors. The strength of a Roman Legion lay in its disciplined battle formations. Unlike the “barbarians”, who fought as unorganized mobs, the Roman army deployed in tight mutually-supporting units, which often allowed it to prevail even when heavily outnumbered. But Arminius had chosen his ground well. In the dense trees and marshes of the Teutoburg Forest, the Romans did not have enough room to gather in battle formations. The entire army–three full Legions–was surrounded and slaughtered. To avoid capture, Varus and his officers killed themselves by falling on their swords. The dead Romans were plundered of weapons and equipment, and the bodies left to rot. It was one of the worst defeats that Rome ever suffered.
When word of the disaster reached the Emperor Augustus, he was stunned. The troops lost in the battle constituted over ten percent of the entire Roman Army, and because Roman policy had always been to keep its troops along the borders, there was now no military force between the victorious Germans and Rome itself, leading briefly to serious fears of an invasion before new troops could be shifted into place. According to Roman historians, Augustus Caesar would wander aimlessly through the imperial palace at night and, at times, suddenly shout out, “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my Legions!”
It wasn’t until eight years later that new Roman troops entered Germania and found the battlefield. Unable to distinguish human bones from horses and mules, they gathered up all of them and buried them in pits. Eventually, the battle site was forgotten, and wasn’t found again until the 1980s, when an amateur British archaeologist serving in Germany with NATO forces found a cache of Roman coins and slingshot bullets in a field near Kalkriese.
The effects of the Teutoburg battle are still felt today. It halted the expansion of the Roman Empire. Despite a series of campaigns over the next 400 years, the Romans were never able to conquer Germania. Eventually the Germanic tribes themselves entered Rome and destroyed the Empire, and for the next two thousand years Europe was split between the Romanized west and the Germanic east. This dichotomy led to centuries of religious war between Catholics and Protestants, then to wars in 1812, 1870, 1914, and 1939. Today, the European Union is a deliberate effort to heal that long-standing rift.