At its peak, the Roman Empire encapsulated all the Mediterranean Sea and ruled over 55 million subjects, bringing them culture, technology, taxes, and for those who opposed: war. In 9AD, three Roman legions in Magna Germania (today western Germany), commanded by Publius Quinctilius Varus, were entirely destroyed by an alliance of Germanic tribes united by Arminius, once an ally of Rome. The battle of the Teutoburg Forest, also known as Varian disaster, has been called Rome’s greatest defeat, not only on account of the casualties (the entire three legions, or between 13.000 and 18.000 men) but also because it brought to a swift end the Romanisation of most of the Germanic Tribes. Although Rome had suffered other catastrophic defeats in the past, taken Hannibal or Spartacus; she had always recovered and overcame her opponents, but not this time. How? Why? Bear with me.
1# The Roman Empire
In 17 BC Rome was still fresh from a Civil War in which the young Octavian had come the winner, thus assuming the titles of Augustus (venerable), Imperator (who commands), and Princeps (first, foremost). Mostly known to us as Emperor Augustus, he oversaw the transition of the Roman Republic into an empire, and his rule was often described as Pax Romana. But was there really peace? The civil war had come as a result of Rome’s lacking foes of its calibre, and Augustus had assimilated well the lessons of the past. Looking East, Augustus had his eyes set on the Rhine, the border between the Roman provinces of Gaul and the Germanic tribes. Until then, Rome’s armies had only crossed the river to mount punitive expeditions against what they referred as Barbarians (you can imagine it wasn’t out fondness or respect). But when several tribes crossed the Rhine and attacked a Roman Legion commanded by Marcus Lollius Paulinus in 16BC (Clades Lolliana or Lollian Disaster), Augustus was provided with the pretext for the casus belli he had been waiting for.
2# The conquest of Germania
The west bank of the Rhine was reinforced, springing several Roman forts than in time would become Germany’s westernmost towns and cities, such as Xanten, Mainz, or Cologne. Several more legions crossed the Rhine with the intention to conquer and settle for the first time, under the able command of Drusus, Augustus’ adoptive son. He soon earned himself the additional name of Germanicus, for being the first Roman to reach the Elbe and Weser Rivers, and for his successful campaigns until his untimely death in 9 BC, aged 29 years. Next year his older brother Tiberius took command of the Rhine armies, and the conquest proceeded.
Under Tiberius, later Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, Marcus Vinicius, and later Tiberius again in 4 AD, a new Roman province was slowly forged in steel and blood. Recent archaeology has revealed evidence of a forum, a sort of a Roman market place, as well as altars and the towns that were being founded (first as Castra, the legionary forts) in the province-to-be. All unmistakable signs that Romans would soon begin a transition from a military-ruled zone to civil-administrated one. The Ilyrian Revolts of 6 AD meant that Tiberius and several of the legions were reassigned to quash them in the provinces of Ilyricum, Pannonia, and Dalmatia; with Publius Quinctilius Varus brought to replace him in the Rhine as the new governor of the pacified province of Magna Germania.
3# Varus and Arminius
Having served in positions of trust in Africa and Judea, Varus was the ideal man for the job, with both experience as a soldier and administrator in critical areas of the Empire. He had been married into the Aggripa family (Augustus’ greatest general) and had served as Consul with Tiberius. Moreover, as a sign of good predisposition from Augustus, he was allowed to marry the latter’s grand-niece, Claudia Pulchra. Few men outside the imperial family could boast of such good favour from the all-powerful Emperor. Commanding the Legions XVII, XVIII, XIX, I Germanica and V ‘The Larks’, plus auxilia (60.000 men); not only he was expected to keep order, but to do something that every good Roman ruler loved and feared alike: set up controversial taxes for the new province. Although rich provinces like Africa and Egypt had been paying taxes for a long time, the scantly affluent Germanic tribes of Magna Germania didn’t like the sound of that.
This leads us to another of the protagonists, Arminius. Little is known of him. Arminius is probably a Latinisation of his Germanic name, which could have been likely Erman. He was born into the ruling class of the Cherusci tribe, around 18 BC. He had a younger brother, Flavus, and both are suggested to had spent time in Rome or even educated there. It is a certainty that both served in the Roman Army as auxiliary officers, recently fighting under Tiberius in the Ilyrian Revolts up to 8 AD. Arminius spoke fluent Latin and was familiar with Roman strategies and way of thinking, which would come up very handy later on. It was a Roman trademark to promote tribal leaders to further their interests and pit them against anti-Roman factions, bribing, cajoling, threatening and even adopting to secure new allies in the territories they wished to add to their collection. Divide an conquer. This well could have been the case for Arminius when he returned to the bosom of the Cherusci in 8 AD. Maybe he was sent in Rome’s payroll?
4# Luring the legions of Rome
Arminus assumed the leadership of the tribe, in doing so antagonising the pro-Roman Segestes, his future father-in-law. Although some resented Rome’s demands for tribute, others were mesmerised by Rome’s gold and technology, and readily partook of its benefits and riches. Whatever goals or motivations Arminius had to betray his Latin masters, that we don’t know. His people’s freedom, the hight taxes, royal ambition, or more personal reasons? The only thing we know for certain is that the tribes were fiercely independent and often waged war against each other, so Arminius must had known that his aspirations had to be curbed to the more feasible strategy of pushing the Romans back to the Rhine. With that in mind, he made preparations until late summer 9 AD, when a golden opportunity presented itself.
With Varus and his legions about to return to their winter camp west of the Rhine, Arminus approached him and told him a tribe (suggested to be the Angrivarii) had revolted against Roman rule. With Arminius in excellent standing with the Romans, he was immediately believed, and preparations were arranged to take a little detour to chastise the rebels. At the same time, Segestes had come to Varus, and tattled Arminius’ plan. Fortunately for the latter, Varus chose not to believe Segestes. A mistake he would pay dearly. Accompanied by three legions, XVII, XVIII and XIX, plus auxiliary cohorts and cavalry squadrons, Varus troops numbered somewhere between 14.000 and 22.000 (depending on how many had been in patrol, wounded, or in other duties) including cooks, slaves, and women who followed the armies around. At their head Arminius and his cavalry screened the way, privy of the knowledge that ahead of the unsuspecting 15 km long column of Romans, awaited the Germanic jaws. The Cherusci, Bructeri, Marsi, and probably other tribes ready to spring a trap above them.
The first attack came on the afternoon of the second day, when lightning raiding German troops assaulted the thin line. The Romans were surrounded by forest, and a storm had broken, making their armour and equipment heavier in comparision with the light-armed barbarians. Mud mired their wagons of supplies and trees snapped under the violent gusts of wind; all made more difficult because non-combatants were intermingled with their ranks. In the closed forest, the Roman legions couldn’t make use of their greatest weapon, their deadly formations of heavy-packed infantry, and their cavalry had no space to manoeuvre. Wet, tired, and hungry, did they however manage to set camp and palisade for the night, always harassed by the tribes, which would have counted with around 15.000 warriors or more. Knowledgeable of the Roman ways, Arminius knew a direct assault on their camp was madness, and so he allowed them to retreat next morning. He knew there would only be a place where they could go on their retreat west, and that was the pass under the Kalkrieser Berg (hill).
5# The last stand at the foot of Kalkriese
When Tacitus wrote about the battle, he referred to its location as Teutoburgiensi saltu, believing it had happened in the Teutoburg forest. Two problems come due to Tacitus’ account. First, the location itself. The archaeological remains found so far indicate a scenario further north from Teutoburg Forest. Second, while Teutoburgiensi saltu can be interpreted as Teutoburg Forest, it can also be rendered as Teutoburg Pass. In reality, as Varus and his ill-fated legions escaped from Arminius, they crossed several cultivated fields, far from the dark oak forests that folklore leds us to believe. The Kalkriese pass was crammed by the homonymous hill on the south, and the Great Moor to the north. A corridor 6 km long and 200 m made even narrower by the hasty erection of a primitive turf and wattle wall on the feet of the hill, from where the Germanic tribes sprung upon the stretched Roman column. Not in another thousand years could Arminius have chosen a better location for his trap.
It was the fourth day since they had started, and the third since Arminius had deserted to attack them. If previously the legions had had a hard time but they had kept moving towards the light at the end of the tunnel, now that tiny light of hope was snuffed out. Arminius and several more tribes who had joined him on the last minute to prey on the weakened Roman army, sprung like wolves on a wounded prey. The attack was overwhelming and the Romans had even less space than before to square off and form into their impressive Testudo formations to repel the enemy. Encircled and overwhelmed by the Germanic burst of viciousness, even the most optimistic must have realised they were done for. Some like the legatus (equivalent of general and commander of a legion) Numonius Vala attempted to break away and flee north, only to be caught and killed later. Others surrendered, while many more chose suicide, fearful of the infamous Germanic sacrifices they had heard so much about. This was Varus’ fate too, some say impalled with his own sword. For the Romans there was no shame in suicide, specially if it was meant to wash away shame and defeat, recalling the Sepuku for the Samurai.
6# Casualties and the Roman Eagles
Total number of Roman deaths must have been outrageous, with many more captured and enslaved, and the three legions entirely ravaged beyond reconstruction. More important, the Aquila (eagle), one for each legion and three in total, were lost to the barbarians. The Aquila was the heart of a legion so to speak, its standart and rally point. To be the Aquilifer (eagle-bearer) was a great honour, to lose the Aquila to the enemy, a great dishonour for the whole men of the legion in question. Needless to say, Arminius and his allies marched home with a great booty of prisoners and loot, but his own casualties are harder to pinpoint. The Romans weren’t precisely defenceless so we must assume Arminius must have suffered moderate to heavy casualties too, although in his case he could replace them easier than the Romans; and unlike them, he had the chance to collect and bury his own death. When future Roman legions found the area, they encountered a mass, open graveyard with the strewn bones of their fellow legionaries, in what had become a place of worship for the Germanic tribes.
7# Revenge and rescue of the Eagles
The battle was over, and with it, Rome’s designs in Magna Germania… or not? Arminius knew better than the Romans easily giving up, and so he hurried to drive the remaining garrisons back to the west of the Rhine, before Rome could send reinforcements. Thanks to the efforts of the camp commander of Aliso, Lucius Caedicius, Arminius had a difficult time in doing so, unable to stop the evacuation of Roman civilians on his side of the Rhine. When the tragic news eventually reached Rome, it’s said Augustus went into mourning for several months, crazed and shouting in his Palatine Hill for everyone to shudder ‘Varus, give me back my legions!’. The magnitude of the disaster was so big, that he declared a state of emergency, and the German troops who formed his bodyguard were reassigned. Tiberius was dispatched to fortify the Rhine, thus the much-feared invasion of the Gaul provinces by Arminius never materialised.
Tiberius and subsequently Germanicus (Drusus’ son, Tiberius’ nephew, and the father of the future Emperor Caligula), led vengeful raids and proper conquest campaigns east of the Rhine with mixed results. In one of them they even managed to capture Arminius’ wife, Thusnelda, and his unborn son, and recover two of the three eagles. However, the escalating costs to recover the lost province, and several revolts that broke amidst the Rhine legions when Augustus died in 14 AD, forced Tiberius, now emperor, to give up on the endeavour. The Rhine was set as the new northern frontier of the Roman Empire, and all the survivors who had trickled back to Rome after the disaster, were spread in other legions or even banned from stepping into Rome again. The last lost eagle would be recovered by Emperor Claudius in 40 AD, together with the last enslaved survivors of the Battle of Teutoburg. And with them, the chapter of one of Rome’s most ignonimous defeats, was finally closed.
8# The end of Arminius
Although the blame was put entirely on Varus’ shoulders, his family didn’t seem to have suffered ostracism or persecution. It is perhaps ironic that they feared better than Arminius, the victor of the battle and who also successfully fought off Germanicus and Arminius’ brother, Flavus (who remained loyaly to Rome), to a standstill. The price was high however for the leader of the Cherusci. His pregnant wife was taken prisoner to Rome, where she would give birth to Thumelicus in 15 AD. He would not see them again. For his part Arminius waged war agains Maroboduus, leader of the Marcomanni and erstwhile ally of Rome, intent on growing his own power base and support. His ambition soon turned against him and he was murdered by a member of his family in strange circumstances in 21 AD. A curious fact, allegedly Tiberius had refused to supply posion for Arminius to an unnamed assassin-to-be from the Germanic tribes. Instead, he replied this was the way of the barbarians, not the way of Rome.
Perhaps yes, but Rome wasn’t lacking their share of poisoning and murky, political, assassinations. In fact, Arminius’ opponent and Tiberius’ heir and nephew, Germanicus, died in 19 AD, suspected of poisoning. Could it be that some faction in Rome had found an ally and plotted together with those Germanic elements antagonistic to the growing ambition of Arminius? Maybe, but we’ll never know for sure.
9# From Arminius to Hermann. From hero to museum
But although in life Arminius was rather ambiguous amongst the Germanic peoples, his death changed that. The release of Tacitus work in the Holy Roman Empire in the 15th century, raised him from the grave. From the Reformation (again Germans vs the Church in Rome) to the Nazi period, he would be used as romantic hero for the German people, a champion of freedom in the same manner as William Wallace is for Scotland, or Boudica for the Britons. Lack of information (nobody even knew for certain where the battle had taken place) meant he would be endowed with modern values, and fight for causes that would hardly have anything to do with his conflict against the Romans. Nevertheless, Arminius became Hermann, as he emerged as a symbol for German unification and Germanic pride, with the famed forest of Teutburg becoming the best example of idealised sylvan. The ancestral home of the Germanic people.
With the fall of Nazism, Arminius or Hermann was thrown back into the forgotten folds of history, to sleep again until 1987, when Major Tony Clunn of the British Army, found the authentic place of the battle at the foot of Kalkriesen Berg. There, since 2002, several items discovered including the famous mask are exposed in a museum dedicated to the battle between Varus and Arminius, a reminder that causes like the German freedom or the Roman glory were paid with the lives, blood, and suffering of young men.