Roman expansion into Germany is halted forever by Varus’ defeat in one of history’s most decisive battles.
At the beginning of the first century of the Common Era Germany seemed on the verge of conquest by the Roman Empire. As with every independent power and people on the periphery of the Mediterranean and its hinterlands, Germany seemed the next nation to fall before the unstoppable power of Rome; and to become the newest jewel in the crown of the Caesars. It was the concerted policy of Augustus Caesar, the first of Rome’s emperors, to expand the empire’s borders beyond the Rhine to the Elbe; both to protect Rome’s Gallic provinces from Germanic raiders and to establish her frontier along a shorter and more defensible border. Following 22 years of steady campaigning, Roman generals had planted the eagles on the western banks of the Elbe, and by AD 6 the western German tribes between the Rhine and the Elbe were considered largely pacified, if not yet completely conquered.
This land the Romans called Germania is described by the historian Tacitus as “covered either by bristling forests or by foul swamps”, inhabited by independent tribes whose men were marked by “fierce-looking blue eyes, reddish hair, and big frames”. The Romans had suffered the worst military defeat in their history at the hands of a Celto-Germanic coalition, the Cimbri and the Teutons, at Arausio (Orange) in 105 BCE. Caesar had fought German hosts on several occasions during his Gallic Wars, and had famously bridged the Rhine and conducted a show-of-force on the German side to cow the tribesmen. Eventually Caesar had recruited German cavalry to support his legions.
Under his successor Augustus (and later rulers of the Julio-Claudian dynasty) a cohort of Germans, the Numerus Batavorum, was recruited to serve as a personal bodyguard. The Caesars valued the fighting quality of the Germans, and as a bodyguard had the advantage of not being Roman, and thus largely immune from local politics and intrigues (unlike the Praetorians). A conquered Germania would over time become, like Gaul, a place to recruit these ferocious warriors.
Early German warriors
Augustus Caesar resolved to bring Germania into the Roman fold. This would end the threat of German raids into the empire, and place the northeastern border on the Elbe, a shorter and more defensible line than the Rhine.
ARMINIUS AND VARUS
The Roman conquest of northwestern Germany began in 12 BC with the campaigns of Drusus, stepson of Augustus, who as governor of Roman Gaul responded to German incursions into his province by crossing the Rhine and devastating the territories of the tribes involved. The following year he again crossed into Germania (as the Romans called the lands of the German tribes). Marching east towards the Weser River, he passed through the lands of the Cherusci tribe, whose territory stretched from the Ems to the Elbe.
Among the Cherusci who saw Drusus’ passing through their territory was a boy of 5 or 6 years old, the son of the chieftain Segimer. His name is unknown, though history remembers him as Arminius. As surety for his father’s loyalty, young Arminius and his younger brother Flavus were taken as hostages to Rome.
There the two German princes were raised to be loyal Romans. When they grew to manhood, both Arminius and Flavus became officers in the army, commanding auxilia cavalry for six years (between 1-6 AD). Both were granted the honor of Roman citizenship, and Arminius at least (and perhaps Flavus as well) obtained the dignity of equestrian rank.
Sometime after 6 AD Arminius returned to his native land and tribe; whether as Praefectus of a Cherusci cavalry ala or as a civilian is unclear. By this time the Roman occupied territories in northwestern Germany were designated as the province of Germania Magna. That he was released from his status of hostage demonstrates Rome’s confidence in his and his father’s loyalty. While Arminius and his brother were away, all had not been well. Between 2 BC and 6 AD many of the tribes, including a faction of the Cherusci, rose up in what was called a “vast war”. No detailed record of this war remains, but the tribes were pacified by first Vinicius and then (from 4 AD) Tiberius, stepson of Augustus and brother of Drusus (who’d died in 9 BC).
Roman auxilia cavalrymen. Young Arminius was an officer of such horsemen in Roman service.
Returning at the end of this conflict, the 23-year-old Arminius found he and his clan granted special favor my Tiberius, who in his efforts to pacify the Cherusci granted the ruling clan (of which Arminius belonged) the status of “free people” among the Germans. But the Cherusci, like all Germans under Roman occupation, were rife with undercurrents of resentment. For reasons unknown, Arminius began intriguing within his own tribe and those neighboring against his Roman patrons.
Arminius’ return to Germany and subsequent turn against the Romans coincided with and may have been caused by a change in circumstances and the arrival of a new governor of Germania Magna.
In 6 AD, Tiberius was about to launch a second campaign against the Marcomanni in southern Germany. A massive force of 11 legions in Germania Magna were preparing to attack from the north, while from the south legions stationed in Illyricum/Pannonia were to march north; destroying Marcomanni opposition in a pincer movement. But before the Romans could launch this campaign a dangerous revolt broke out in Illyricum that threatened both Italy and Roman Macedonia. A hasty peace was concluded with the Marcomanni, and Tiberius was given command of the Roman troops sent to crush this revolt. Eight of the eleven legions in Germania Magna left with Tiberius for Pannonia. In his place, a new governor was appointed: Publius Quinctilius Varus.
Coin bearing the likeness of Q. Varus
Varus was lawyer and experienced administrator known for the harshness of his methods. As governor of Syria from 7/6 BC until 4 BC he caused widespread resentment by his high-handed rule and the crushing taxes he exacted from the provincials. In 4 BC civil disorder in Judea following the death of Herod the Great caused him to march on Jerusalem, where he crucified some 2,000 Jews.
He brought to the new Roman Germania province the same arrogance and high taxation. The long-conquered Syrians, a highly civilized people who were accustomed to despotic governance dating back at least as far as Ashurbanipal and Darius, may have meekly accepted this treatment. But the Germans, a fiercely free people who labored for none but themselves and acknowledged no lord but their tribal chieftains, hotly resented Varus’ treating them like conquered minions.
It may well have been an antipathy to Varus, personally, and of his methods and policies that led Arminius to consider himself once again, first-and-foremost, a prince of the Cherusci rather than an Equestrian and loyal client of Rome. This, combined with Rome’s distraction with the revolt in Pannonia may have convinced Arminius that the time was ripe for action.
All the while gaining Varus’ trust and insinuating himself into the governor’s councils as a trusted adviser, Arminius secretly forged an alliance of the neighboring tribes. These included the Marsi, the Chatti, Bructeri, Chauci, Sicambri, and elements of the Suebi. Over the next couple of years Arminius laid his plans, and waited for the opportunity to throw-off the Roman yoke.
MARCH TO TEUTOBERGER WALD
Arminius’ opportunity came in 9 AD.
In September Varus marched the three legions he had in Germany (Legio XVII, Legio XVIII, and Legio XIX), accompanied by six auxilia infantry cohorts and three squadrons (alae) of cavalry; toward Moguntiacum (modern-day Mainz), where he planned to winter. His total forces was somewhere between 20,000 – 36,000 men.
On the march Arminius brought Varus word that a revolt had broken out to his north, perhaps among the Chauci. The Cheruscian prince advised that by prompt action Varus could quash this rebellion before it got out of hand. Another Cherusci chief, Segestes, who was an enemy of Arminius and friend of Rome, warned Varus not to trust Arminius; and instead advised him to arrest both Arminius and several other tribal leaders. But Varus disbelieved Segestes, and disregarded the warning as motivated by the men’s mutual animosity. With Arminius directing his route, Varus and his legions began marching toward their doom.
Varus’ army followed a narrow path through the forest, hardly a road at all; which Arminius promised was the quickest way to the trouble spot. The terrain grew increasingly difficult: heavily forested hills cut by overgrown, swampy ravines and gullies. According to the historian Cassius Dio, the “mountains had an uneven surface broken by ravines, and the trees grew close together and very high. Hence the Romans, even before the enemy assailed them, were having a hard time of it felling trees, building roads, and bridging places that required it.” The army’s progress was further slowed by the large baggage train attending the soldiers, who had been marching to winter quarters:
They had with them many wagons and many beasts of burden as in time of peace; moreover, not a few women and children and a large retinue of servants were following them – one more reason for their advancing in scattered groups.
Even the elements turned against Varus, as a violent rainstorm assailed the marching legions. A “violent rain and wind came up that separated them still further, while the ground, that had become slippery around the roots and logs, made walking very treacherous for them, and the tops of the trees kept breaking off and falling down, causing much confusion”.
As they approached modern Osnabrück, Arminius and other German officers begged Varus’ permission to leave the column, telling Varus they were off to assemble tribal auxiliaries to aid the Romans against the rebels. However, they instead joined their tribal forces, assembled in the forests all around in prepared ambush.
By this point the column had become perilously spread out along the narrow path, some 9 to 12 miles from van to rear; the towering trees dark and foreboding, the driving rain reducing visibility even further. Suddenly, echoing from the dark forest though the mists and rain, came the eerie chanting battle cry of the German tribes, the “barritus“; which Tacitus describes as a “harsh, intermittent roar”, “amplified into a deeper crescendo by the reverberation” of the warriors holding their shields to their mouths.
Then the air was alive with a shower of javelins thrown from all quarters. These rained down on the Romans, inflicting death and disorder on an already chaotic scene. These missiles were the framae, ubiquitous light spears of the German warrior. Each carried a brace behind his shield, used as javelin at range or spear in close quarters. Confusion reigned, and as the Germans saw the Romans were in no good position to offer concerted resistance, they came down from the high ground or from within the bogs to assail the soldiers at close quarters.
…the barbarians suddenly surrounded them on all sides at once, coming through the densest thickets, as they were acquainted with the paths. At first they hurled their volleys from a distance; then, as no one defended himself and many were wounded, they approached closer to them.
For the Romans were not proceeding in any regular order, but were mixed in helter-skelter with the wagons and the unarmed, and so, being unable to form readily anywhere in a body, and being fewer at every point than their assailants, they suffered greatly and could offer no resistance at all.
It was a command-and-control nightmare for any leader, even a modern one with all the advantages of radio, maps, and GPS. For Varus it was an impossible situation. Troops could not form a battle line or fight in any depth, along the narrow path or in the dense surrounding woods. It is a testament to their discipline and training that they were able to close up and, defending themselves all the while from every side, and to build a fortified camp “so far as that was possible on a wooded mountain” in which to spend the night.
No record exists of a command meeting held that night in Varus’ tent (assuming a tent could be erected in the chaos). But whatever plan for the following day was formulated, it involved breaking camp at dawn and marching as best they could out of the confined space of the forest and onto more open terrain. This was available to them north of the Wiehen Hills, near the modern town of Ostercappeln. Dispensing with the baggage wagons, the Romans marched forward that second day under a constant harassment by the tribesmen, towards the open area where they were here able to form up in some sort of order. The attack did not abate, though here they took fewer casualties and could better defend themselves. In the open ground Varus made his second camp.
On the third day the Romans marched on, once again entering the forest (no other path of escape being open to them). If anything the enemy’s ranks were growing thicker, as tribesmen, hearing of the Romans plight, joined Arminius’ forces to take part in the victory (and plundering) that appeared imminent. The rain now beat down ever more ferociously, perhaps as great an enemy as the Germans who darted in-and-out of the trees to attack the Roman column. Dio paints a picture of chaos, with cavalry and infantry blundering into each other and into trees in the blinding rain. The muddy, boggy terrain The Romans suffered their greatest casualties here, on the third day.
Modern reconstruction of the palisade prepared by Arminius near Kalkriese
During the night the column attempted to break out, but in the morning found themselves on a sandy strip of ground between the foot of Kalkriese Hill and swampland at the edge of a bog. Arminius had here neatly blocked the road with a trench, and a wooden palisade had been erected on the higher, wooded slope to its flank; from which the defending tribesmen pelted the column with missiles. His years with the Roman army had taught Arminius well the advantages of field fortifications.
There was no alternative but to storm the palisade. The legions closed ranks and climbed the hill. The alternating mud and rain-slicked rock and gravel made the footing treacherous. Four days of driving rain had left their scutums waterlogged, their clothing sodden. They faced a driving wind blowing the rain into their faces. After several attempts, the Romans gave up the assault and retreated. The Germans followed them closely, storming down the hill into the Roman ranks.
Like wolves sniffing blood, the emboldened Germans now closed for the kill from all sides on the greatly thinned-out Roman ranks.
Seeing that all was lost, and fearing capture, Varus and some of his senior officers committed suicide. Varus’ senior Legatus, Numonius Vala, attempted to escape with some of the remaining cavalry. The Germans pursued and slaughtered them before they could reach the Rhine. Most of what remained of Varus’ army was cut down, many too weak to lift their weapons and shields, but nevertheless fighting to the last. The historian Paterculus wrote: “Hemmed in by forests and marshes and ambuscades, it was exterminated almost to a man by the very enemy whom it had always slaughtered like cattle, whose life or death had depended solely upon the wrath or the pity of the Romans.”
Some small detachments, led by their centurions, attempted to escape. Many of these lost their way and were trapped in the low ground around the Great Bog, where they were killed. Only a relative handful of survivors managed to make their way to Roman forts along the Rhine. Some 20,000 Romans perished.
Some of the senior prisoners taken were tortured to death, or sacrificed in hideous ways to the Germanic gods. Others, lower-ranking soldiers, were enslaved. Arminius found Varus’ corpse, and after beheading the dead Roman commander, sent this grizzly trophy south to the king of the Marcomanni in effort to win him, too, to the anti-Roman coalition. This effort failed, but that day in September, 9 AD, Arminius stood victorious on a muddy, bloody field; having achieved what would prove not just a decisive victory, but one that would change the very course of history.
In the immediate aftermath of the battle Arminius’s tribesmen attempted to exploit their victory by attacking along the Rhine frontier; but the garrisons of the various forts held them at bay. Still, there was widespread panic in Rome and in the Gallic province, as only two legions remained to hold the river.
But the tribal alliance could not hold together, and Arminius was soon dealing with rivals at home instead of the Romans abroad. Six years later Germanicus, son of the late German conqueror Drusus and nephew of Tiberius, would lead punitive expeditions into Germany to punish Arminius and the tribes responsible for the massacre at Teutoburg Forest. Coming to the site of the massacre, he would find the remains of the disaster littering the area. Tacitus describes well the grim scene Germanicus found:
Varus’ first camp with its wide circumference and the measurements of its central space clearly indicated the handiwork of three legions. Further on, the partially fallen rampart and the shallow fosse suggested the inference that it was a shattered remnant of the army which had there taken up a position. In the center of the field were the whitening bones of men, as they had fled, or stood their ground, strewn everywhere or piled in heaps. Near lay fragments of weapons and limbs of horses, and also human heads, prominently nailed to trunks of trees. In the adjacent groves were the barbarous altars, on which they had immolated tribunes and first-rank centurions.
Some survivors of the disaster who had escaped from the battle or from captivity, described how this was the spot where the officers fell, how yonder the eagles were captured, where Varus was pierced by his first wound, where too by the stroke of his own ill-starred hand he found for himself death. They pointed out too the raised ground from which Arminius had harangued his army, the number of gibbets for the captives, the pits for the living, and how in his exultation he insulted the standards and eagles.
And so the Roman army now on the spot, six years after the disaster, in grief and anger, began to bury the bones of the three legions, not a soldier knowing whether he was interring the relics of a relative or a stranger, but looking on all as kinsfolk and of their own blood, while their wrath rose higher than ever against the foe. In raising the barrow Caesar laid the first sod, rendering thus a most welcome honor to the dead, and sharing also in the sorrow of those present.
Honors done to the lost army’s remains, Germanicus would continue against the Germans, ultimately recovering two of the three lost eagles. The third legionary eagle was recovered in 41 AD from the Chauci during the reign of Claudius, brother of Germanicus. Some 40 years after Arminius’ victory Roman forces liberated Roman slaves held by the Chatti, including some survivors of Varus’ army.
But when Germanicus was done, Tiberius, now emperor and successor to Augustus, pulled out of Germany and returned the Roman border to the Rhine. No further attempt was made to add Germany to the empire.
Teutoburg Forest had stopped Roman expansion, and reversed the tide of Roman conquest that had been unchecked for 4 centuries. The borders of the empire would expand and contract over the next few centuries; but never again into Germania.
That Germany remained outside the empire had wide-reaching consequences.
The first was that the empire would not have a shorter, more defensible frontier in the west. It is arguable that a fortified border that ran along the west bank of the Elbe to the Carpathian Mountains would have taken fewer troops to defend, and thus placed a lighter burden upon the Roman treasury. The virile western German tribes that continued to harass the Rhine frontier into the 4th century; and which would eventually, in the early 5th century, overrun Gaul and Spain entirely; would have become defenders of, and not enemies of the empire. Thus the lifespan of at least the Western Roman Empire might have been greatly extended.
That is the negative effect of Arminius’ victory. The positive one is perhaps even greater: that Germany remained independent and outside of Roman law and culture.
The Germans had a unique culture of their own. It was one that embraced individual freedoms and a liberty to a much greater degree than was the case of the Celts (particularly the Gauls) or the various civilized people of the empire. Though the Greeks early in their history and the Romans of the Republic gave the world its first experiences with democracy and republican form of governance; the Roman Empire was increasingly authoritarian and despotic in its later centuries. Whereas Diocletian turned most of Rome’s farmers into little better than surfs, oppressed by an oppressive tax system; in the German lands and kingdoms that replaced the empire in the west there was still a healthy free-man class of yeomen farmers/warriors. This spirit would infuse the west, particularly in England (conquered in the 6th century by Anglo-Saxons) and Germany itself, where free farmers would jealously maintain the freedoms that Arminius, in opposing Rome’s iron hand upon his native land, bequeathed to them.
At end of the civil war which brought him into power, Augustus Caesar had economized by downsizing the Roman army from 78 legions to a mere 25 legions. In Augustan Rome’s downsized, shrunken military structure the loss of Varus’ three legions represented nearly 17% of the entire legionary force of the empire, almost one-in-five of its soldiers. On hearing news of the disaster, Augustus was thunderstruck; so distraught that months later he is said to have banged his head against the wall, crying out:
“Quintili Vare, legiones redde!“ (‘Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!’)
- Tacitus, Germania
- The tribal politics of the Cherusci at this time are unclear. Segimer seems to have been at the least the paramount chief of the tribe, if not its king. Just prior to Varus’ disaster, the tribe became divided between the pro-Roman and anti-Roman factions, each with their own leaders. Segimer and his son Arminius came to lead the anti-Roman faction; while another chief (or powerful nobleman), Segestes, led the pro-Roman. According to Tacitus, following Arminius’ war against Roman occupation and Germanicus‘ subsequent punitive campaigns, the devastated Cherusci requested of Rome that Hermann’s nephew, Italicus, raised within the empire and thoroughly Romanized, be allowed to return and take up the kingship; as he was the last living member of their “royal house”. This would seem to indicate that Segestes, Italicus grandfather, was king of the tribe and not just one of its chieftains. But the question is open to speculation.
- Though it has been convention since the 18th century to Germanize his name as Hermann we do not actually know what Arminius’ true name was. The Roman histories call him Arminius, and this is likely a Latinisation of his original German name. This could have been Erminameraz or Erminaz. It certainly was not”Hermann”, a German name that did not come into usage before the Middle Ages, and means “man of war”.
- Flavus’ real Germanic name is, like his brother’s, unknown. Flavus in Latin means “the blonde”; and was likely given to him by his Roman hosts/captors when he came to Rome, doubtlessly referring to his hair color.
- Dio Cassius, Historia Romana; Book 56.20.1
- Ibid, 56.20.2
- Ibid, 56.20.3
- Ibid, 56.20.4-5
- Ibid, 56.21.1
- Vellius Paterculus, Historia Romana II 119, 1-2
- Tacitus, 1.61-62