The Last Campaign: Rome in the Teutoburg Forest
In 9 AD the Roman Senate and People thought they were about to absorb greater Germany in to the growing Roman Empire. Caesar Augustus had unified the Roman world into a single entity, and the Romans had absorbed several adjacent territories in the Mediterranean under his rule. Germany was ripe for conquest.
Southern Germany, called Germania Inferior, had been pacified by Roman legions under Tiberius, the heir to the Empire. Tiberius had campaigned in Germania Inferior in 4 AD until a rebellion broke out in another Roman province, Pannonia, and he was forced to take his legions there. He left behind German tribes that were weak, disorganized, and ready to fall.
Prelude to disaster
When Tiberius was moved to Pannonia to put down a revolt Caesar Augustus sent Publius Quinctilius Varus to command the legions along the Rhine. It was supposed to be a simple operation. Varus was not a military leader, but a politician. He was a friend of the Emperor, and made his name in securing post-rebellion Judea. Rome seen Germania as already pacified and just in need of Roman organization to become a Roman province.
The German tribes were not of the same mind. They saw themselves as free people, strong and proud of their heritage. Furthermore German tribes had become increasingly militarized since their initial contact with Rome. German soldiers often served as auxiliaries for the Roman armies.
Archaeological finds show that German burials became more elaborate as time passed. Soldiers began to be buried with their weapons and oftentimes they had Roman equipment buried with them. This implies that warriors were becoming more important to society, and that there was a surplus of weapons in Germania.
The Battle of Teutoburg Forest
Arminius, also called Hermann the German, was a Roman hostage and adviser to Varus, but he was much more. Arminius sought to free his people from Roman rule, and to prevent any attempt by Rome to exert sovereignty over Germania. He gathered several tribes that had been slighted by the Romans and formed a coalition to destroy the Roman armies along the Rhine.
While Varus was encamped along the Rhine Arminius informed him of a German rebellion in the north of the territory. Arminius gave Varus a shortcut that was supposed to help him reach the target zone, and he left to gather troops to help the Romans. In fact he was gathering men to attack the Roman garrisons while Varus was walking in to a trap.
The battlefield at the Teutoburg Forest was prepared for the Roman army. Germanic forces had constructed a wall made of earthworks to block off one side of the road, while the other side of the road was a large bog. Roman forces were not able to properly deploy on what was left of the road because it was too small.
What occurred in the Teutoburg Forest was more of a slaughter than a battle. Germanic forces ambushed the Roman line at several points while it was still in marching formation. Roman soldiers at different ends of the column did not even know the other side was under attack because the army was spread so thin. Legionaries carried a huge amount of equipment. Each man had a trade that helped the army survive, such as blacksmiths, carpenters, or cooks, and they would have been carrying all of their equipment on their person when they were ambushed.
German soldiers on the other hand were well prepared for battle. They were light, agile, and well equip for fighting in the dense woodland that served as a battlefield. Germanic soldiers used light javelins, spears and axes to cut down the Romans in droves. It was said that Roman soldiers could not even move because the bodies of those cut down trapped their feet. Any Romans that escaped the wall became trapped in the bog. Rather than be captured many of the leading Roman officers committed suicide.
Three entire Roman legions were lost in the Teutoburg forest. All the forts east of the Rhine were lost to Germanic forces, or burned and abandoned before the Germans arrived. The lost Roman legions would never be raised again, a first in Roman history.
Five years later a Roman army under Germanicus launched retaliatory strikes against the Germans. They inflicted heavy losses on the German forces, and regained two of the lost legionary eagles. When they reached the Teutoburg Forest they found the bones of their comrades arranged ritualistically, with some nailed to trees, or piled in great heaps. They buried their fallen comrades before crossing back west of the Rhine. Never again would Rome try to conquer the German tribes.
History has widely blamed Varus for the Roman failure at the Teutoburg Forest. He failed to scout ahead, and blindly accepted Arminius's advice. Had Varus deployed scouts he may have survived that fateful day. Varus is also blamed for being a cruel governor whose punishments pushed several of the Germanic tribes together when they had been traditional enemies.
The Battle of Teutoburg Forest should be a lesson for all ages. Underestimating local populations can be extremely dangerous. Knowledge of terrain and scouting are important for the success of any military operation. Furthermore one should never blindly follow advisers who may have hidden agendas.
More by this Author
The Battle of Cynoscephalae secured Roman dominance of the Greek city-states and caused the decline and collapse of the independent Macedonian kingdom.
Julius Caesar is often considered a tyrant. This article argues that he was simply a popular leader living in a different and difficult time.
Alexander the Great was an amazing commander, but he was not the great general history sometimes sees.