The Decissive Battles of History: Ancient Battles--Teutoburg Forest (9 AD)


Figure 1.--

Few battles have had more important consequences than that waged by the Germanic Tribes in the Teutoburg Forest. It was one of the most significant battles in European history, the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest took place in 9 AD. It is little remembered today outside of Germsany, in part because it was a catestrophic Roman defeat and the Romans did not chose to dwell on it. The Roman defeat was probably the greatest military disaster ever suffered by Rome--certainly the graetest since the struggle to the death with Hanibal. When Augustus heard of the disaster, he is reported to have screamed. "Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!". No other Roman legions were ever named the XVII, the XVIII or the XIX. Varus' expedition was the largest ever mounted to subdue the Germans. Rome never again mounted such a massive expedition. The Rhine and the Danuble to the south became in effect the boundary between civilized Rome and the barbarous Germanic east. Germanicus Ceasar led a retalitory campaign accross the Rhine, but from 9 AD, Roman policy toward the Germans along the Rhine was basically one of continment

The Germanic Tribes

The Germans at the time were a pre-litterate people. Thus surviving accounts come from Roman sources a fact that must be kept in mind when utilizing these sources. The Tribes inhabited the lands between the Rhine and Elba Rivers. Efforts to expand west had been defeated by the Romans. The Romans reffered to the area east 0f the Rhine as Germania. This suggeststhe existence of centalized Germanic state which was not the case. Germania was inhabited by independent and often antagonisdtic tribes with linguisdtic and cultural similsarities.

The Romans

The Battle occurred during the reign of Augustus (27 BC-14 AD). Augustus was the first Roman emperor and he brought Rome to the peak of its power. By 9 AD, however, Augustus was an aging man but he still saw himself as presiding over an expanding Empire. Julius Ceasar had conquered Gaul. Ceasar had also defeated the Grermani in Gaul and persued them accross the Rhine. Other Roman commanders during the reign of Augustus had considerable military success against the Germans east of the Rhine and a considerable area was in the process of being Romanized. Augustus was pleased with the extent to which the Gauls were being Romaniozed and saw the same process important to persue with the Germanic tribes.

Varus

Publius Quinctilius Varus, Roman Proconsul, had made a name for himself in Africa, bringing important tribute back to Rome. As Roman governor of Syria Varus was successful in furthering Roman influence and increasing imperial income. He also made a fortune for himself. It was said of Varus that when hevarrived in Syria, he wasca poor man and Syria a rich probince, but whjen hevleft he was rich and Syria poor. Varus was not a military man, he was more a lawyer and administrator.

Arminius

The German leader was Arminius (sometimnes referred to as Hermann) who was the youthful leader of the Cherusci (a Germanic tribe). Arminius knew the Romans. He was raised in Rome and had served in the Roman army (1-6 AD). He had been granted Roman citinship. Arminius had returned to Germany in 7 AD with Varus. Armenius was the master mind behind the defeat of the Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest. He had been raised in Rome. We have few details on him at this time and no images of him as a youth. There are no contemporary images, but you would think that some German artists or illustrators might have created an image of the young Armenius. He also served in the Roman Army. He was thus familiar with Roman military tactics. He is known in Germany as Hermann. Americans of German ancestry have organized the Order of the Hermann Sons, a fraternal lodge. This lodge was founded in 1840 in New York City by Americans of German descent. The first Hermann Sons lodge in California was established in San Francisco in 1870. Hermann Sons lodges are everywhere in the U.S. In California alone there are today still 21 such lodges. There is a city, Hermann, in Missouri where they have an exact replica of the Hermann statue in the Teutoburg Forest (Teutoburger Wald). The warrior with his sword, ready for the attack. Thereís a Hermannsdenkmal on the Grotenburg a 386-meter hill southwest of Detmold, Germany (figure 1). It was created by Josef Ernst von Bandel (1800-76) between 1838-75 and erected on 16th August 1875. Its heigh is 53.46 metres. Some later said it was a gesture directed at the French (especially as it was erected right after the Franco Prussian War). But it has also been said that over the Rhine lived Gauls belonging to the Roman Empire. A HBC reader adds that the Germans didnít had these winged helmets as they would have been useless for fighting.

The Forest

Northern Europe at the time was heavily forrested. The seemed dark and forboding. The Romans saw the great forrests of northern Europe ass the edge of the world. Deep forests were also not the kind of lanscape in which a Roman army could be effectively formed and deployed. The Germanic peoples saw the forrests in a different light. They saw the great trees of the forests as imbued with spirits and gods. This reverence has come down tgo our modern era. The custom of brining trees and other greenery into the home at Christmas is a German tradition adopted in England and Amnerica during the Victorian era, in part because of the influence of Prince Alber.

Roman Policy

The Germanic peoples were still independent of Rome, but were a kinf of client state paying only nominal tribute to the Emperor. Augustus believed that the time had come to more fully bring the Germanic tribes within the Romasm imperium which would mean greatly expanfed income in tribute and taxes. Augustus appointed Varus governor of Germania province (7 AD). Varus's performance as governor of Syria seemed to make him an ideal choice. The choice reflects the Roman assessment that Germania was a largely pacified province that was ready for Roman rule. Otherwise Augustus woulkd have chosen a general to lead a puinitive expedition.

Governor of Germania

Varus set about attempting to further expand Rome's frontiers beyond the Rhine to a generate the same kind of income and tribute that now flowed from Gaul which had been subdued by Ceaser. He dealt with the Germanic tribes as if they had been subdued and were vassal states. When the Germans did respond militarrily and received Varus peacefully, inspired trust. Varus concluded that the Germans would accept the Roman domination without a punative military campaign.

The Battle (9 AD)

Varus learned of a tribal rebellion in the east and prepared to supress it. Varus in 9 AD led three legions (XVII, XVIII, and XIX), six cohorts and three squadrons of cavalry (alae), a force totasling about 20,000 men. This was an emense military force and a substantial part of Rome's army at the time. Armenius and the Cherusci pledged to assist Varus and marched with the Roman legions. In fact they were already gathering soldiers and preparing to ambush him and preparing entreched positions. Armenius led Varus into the Teutoburg Forest toward the ebntrnched positions. Arminius suggests that he move independently and raise additional allies among loyal tribes. Varus trusting in his friend agrees. Arminius raises additional men, but among tribes willing to resist the Romans. The Roman force enters the Teutoburg Forest in a long drawn out lines. There is an extensive baggage train tgo allow for the comfor of Varus and his officers. Arminius has palnned the battle carefully. He knows that the Germanic tribes could not confront a fully formed Roman army on open treraine. The head of the Roman line is attacved by the Geramnics warriors with a hail of arrows from the woods. When they attempt to enter the woods they are confronted by earthen emplacenrntds porepared well in advance. The Romnans suffer heavy losses and the forests prevents Varus from brining his force forward to support the head of the column. The Romans fall back and make camp. The next day the Germanic attacks begin again. The Romans continue to take heavy losses. Arminius succeeds in dividing the Roman force. The Roman calvalry withdraws, seeking saftey west of the Rhine. By the third day it is clear to Varus and his commanders that the battler is lost. They arte surronded and there is no hope of escape. Knowing how they will be treated Varus and other commanders commit suiside. Varus falls on his sword. Those Romans not killed in the fighting are taken prisoner and subsequently sacrificed to the forest gods. Arminius sends Varus' head to Augustus. There are no real detailed accounts of the battle. The Germanic ttribes were not yet literate. Few Romans survived and at any rate the Germans did not like dwealing on their defeats. One mystery is how the Germanic fighters succeeded in so thoroughly destroying three batytle hardened and heavily armored legions. Some historians speculate thsat because no Germanic weaponry has been found in the battle asrea that arminius succeeded in obtaining Roman weapons and armor for his men.

Roman Military Disaster

The Roman defeat in the Teutoburg Forest was probably the greatest military disaster ever suffered by Rome--certainly the greatest since the struggle to the death with Hanibal. When Augustus heard of the disaster, he is reported to have screamed. "Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!". No other Roman legions were ever named the XVII, the XVIII or the XIX. Varus' expedition was the largest ever mounted to subdue the Germans. Rome never again mounted such a massive expedition. The Rhine and the Danuble to the south became in effect the boundary between civilized Rome and the barbarous Germanic east. Germanicus Ceasar led a retalitory campaign accross the Rhine, but from 9 AD, Roman policy toward the Germans along the Rhine was basically one of continment

Consequences

The battle ended Aufust's vision of empire without end. Altough Roman legions did cross tghe Rhine later, the battle essebntially fixed the eastern boundary of the Empire art the Rhine. It also changed Roman attitudes. There was never another major effort to subjagate Germania or gto push the boundaries of the Empire east of the Rhine. The Romans also never attempted to expand the army further. Augystus had 28 legions. The dissater in the Teutoburg Forest destroyed three entire legioins. The 25 legion force remained the fiorce level of the Empire. Rome nrever replaced the tghree lost legions. The shape of the Empire and its was thius permanently altered by the battle. The impact was, however, much more important. The Rhinre River frontier between the Empire and Germania created a cultural fdivide that would affect Europe for two milennia. That cultural divide would not be shattered until Allied forces crossed the Rhine in the clossing months of Word War II.

German-Latin Cultural Divide

A vibrant united Europe is a development that has come about in our post-World War II. Many remember the Cold War which divided Europe after World War II. In fact, there have been many political and cultural fissures that have divide Europe for millenia. Perhaps the most significant is the cultural divide between the Latin West and the Germanic East. That division came about as a result of a battle little-known outside Germany, but arguably is one of the most significant in all of European history. A youthful German tribal leader, Arminius, smashed three entire Roman Legions trying to subdue Germanic tribes east of the Rhine in the Teutonburg Forest. While Varus failed to unite the Germans, his brilliant military victory established the Rhine as the border between the civilized Roman Empire and the barberous Germanic tribes. The Rhine, a geographic barrier of emense proprtions, came to be a major cultural divide which played out in our modern age as the clash between France and Germany.







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Created: 2:47 AM 10/25/2004
Last updated: 5:27 AM 10/25/2004