Missteps and Mayhem: The Battle of Teutoburg Forest and the End of Early Roman Imperial Expansion 

“There is a sweeping curve of glen, made for ambushes/ and devices of arms. Dark thick foliage hems it in on either hand,/ and into it a bare footpath leads by a narrow gorge and difficult entrance./ Right above it on the watch-towers of the hill-top lies an unexpected level, hidden away in shelter, whether one would charge from right and left or/ stand on the ridge and roll down heavy stones./ Hither he passes by a line of way he knew, and, seizing his ground, occupies/ the treacherous woods…” – Virgil, The Aeneid

Okay, this week I promised we’d get back into some more serious stuff, so, seeing how we’re around the traditionally given anniversary for one of Rome’s most infamous military disasters, I thought we’d talk a little about that. Because America’s not the only country with a catastrophic relationship to 9/11.

But as I’ve heartily admitted in the past, I am the most amateur of military historians so I’m probably going to spend more time framing the circumstances around the battle than going into exhaustive detail on the battle itself. There are many great books out there for this seismic campaign if my prattling whets your appetite for Roman schadenfreude— the one I found very helpful as a layperson is Osprey Publishing’s treatment of it in Teutoburg Forest AD 9, being that it’s concise with lots of pictures. Because I do not have good battlefield visualization skills. Also, because this is me, this entry will be extremely meme-heavy. Because the only thing I have more memes for than the Library of Alexandria is this.

[You’ve been warned…]

The Battle of Teutoburg Forest (9 AD) was the culmination of a long period of Roman conquest in central/western Europe that had begun with Caesar’s brutal and highly successful subjugation of Gaul and Lower Germania in the 50s BC. It was also the high watermark for Augustan territorial expansion, which had continued almost uninterrupted throughout Octavius’ long reign. Rome had enjoyed years of victories in nearly every direction, but the first decade of the Common Era marked a period of general instability as the Empire had expanded its borders so far and so relatively quickly that it was threatening to implode at the edges like the Krispy Kreme business model.

Part of the problem was that despite the empire having practically doubled in size, it still maintained roughly the same number of legions it had possessed after the Battle of Actium forty years earlier. The image of the mighty Roman legion as ever-present and steamrolling everything in its path was more of an impression than an actual fact. Large armies are expensive and difficult to control; even with vast new territories full of new subjects one could press into legionary service in place of increasingly reluctant Romans, it really wasn’t in Octavius’ best interest to keep the legions operating at full tilt. One, because the settlements he had made with the Senate put a lot of the financing for the army directly on his personal fortune; and two, no one understood better than Julius Caesar’s great-nephew-cum-son that the army was was a breeding ground for upstarts and political challengers. Additionally, while especially in the ranks, the military was an almost lifelong gig, soldiers did eventually need to be retired and pensioned off, which was a continual source of political and financial friction in Rome. This is why Octavius’ policy from the very start was the same as most successful corporations’ are: which is to run as much as you can with as little as possible.

The number of legions for the entire empire at this time was somewhere between twenty-eight and thirty legions (with around 5,000 men per legion), with the general breakdown as follows: ~5 in Hispania (Spain), 1-2 in Vinelicia/Gaul (France), 5-6 Germania (Germany), ~5 in Illyria (the Balkans), 3-4 in Macedonia, 1 in North Africa (Carthage), 3 in Egypt, and 3-4 in Syria. If problems arose in another part of the empire, legions could be shuffled around as needed, but as you can envision, moving soldiers away from one territory could mean leaving another population free to get ideas of their own. Therefore, in spite of their fearsome military reputation, Imperial Rome could ill-afford multi-front conflicts any more than the average modern army.

Some of this pressure was meant to be relieved by the rulers of Rome’s client kingdoms. In case you were wondering why even deep into Octavius’ reign he maintained a constellation of dependent vassal monarchs rather than simply making every territory a Roman province, this was part of it. The client rulers generally occupied territories that were either border kingdoms at the edges of the Empire’s lands (Mauretania, Cappadocia), or kingdoms still too unstable to be ruled directly by Rome without great difficulty or expense (Judaea, Thrace). By maintaining a dependent government that had given political allegiance to Rome, the Empire could shift some of the burden of governance and its intendant expense more thoroughly on the local sphere: for example, the fielding of a royal military to either supplement or replace official imperial legions. This arrangement would usually continue until circumstances changed, either through the extinction of the ruling dynasty with whom the arrangement had been made, or if the dynasty could no longer maintain order in their kingdom. All of the client kingdoms would eventually become imperial provinces, but it was useful buffer system during the early Empire when cross-regional stability was still new.

This arrangement is why the Roman legate in Carthage often had only one legion at his disposal (at this period, the III Augusta legion). With the generally stable Kingdom of Mauretania to the west, the governor didn’t need as many imperial troops to maintain Rome’s relatively narrow holdings on the coast. If real trouble somehow beckoned, legions could be recalled from Egypt or the Iberian peninsula, but this rarely happened during this period. Especially since Octavius was usually slow to move his Egyptian legions out of the Nile Valley— in part because the Egyptians were still not exactly known for their devoted allegiance to Rome, either in the far south of Upper Egypt where they were hard to control out in the desert or in ever-fractious Alexandria itself under the nose of the praefect; but also because these were the three legions (at this time, the III Cyrenaica, the XXII Deiotariana, and the XII Fulminata) Octavius had complete control over. Moving them abroad might move them into the Senate’s control, however briefly, and he liked to avoid that when possible.

Anyway, this left the Empire freer to station legions where they were needed to protect Roman borders from hostile neighbors and unassimilated ethnic groups. One of these dicier regions was upper Germany and Eastern Europe. Caesar’s conquests had left most of the Gallic tribes in France and southern Germany in some sort of peaceful relationship with Rome, with occasional flare ups; while later gains by Octavius’ stepsons Drusus and Tiberius secured working relationships with tribal groups in the northwest (the modern Low Countries) like the Batavi and the Frisi. But there were a whole host of Germanic tribes with varying levels of hostility to Rome occupation. These tribes also varied greatly in their approach to Rome’s encroachments. Some like the Macromanni, a subgroup of the larger eastern German Suebi tribe, worked a long frienemy game with Roman rule— their chieftain at this time, Maroboduus, was notorious in Italy for playing nice when it suited him and backstabbing with equal frequency.

Alongside their wavering Suebi neighbors in the southeast, the Cherusci were a large coalition of loosely affiliated chieftains who held a major swath of northern Germany west of the Low Countries. Their territory was largely situated between two major rivers: the Weser in the east and the Rhine in the west. While they are mentioned in Caesar’s Gallic commentaries, being so far north, the Cherusci were a tribe the Romans didn’t conquer until much later. Drusus leads the campaign against them in 12 BC, and it takes another roughly three years for any kind of decisive outcome to be achieved.

In 9 BC, Drusus manages to defeat Segimerus, the chieftain of the most powerful Cherusci noble house, which brings the rest of the coalition to heel. A peace treaty is worked out, in which two of Segimerus’ sons, Arminius and Flavus, are sent to be raised as hostages in Rome as surety for the Cherusci’s obedience. Unfortunately, Drusus doesn’t get to enjoy the fruits of his victory very long, as he suffers a riding accident that leads to his death in the summer of 9 BC. His older brother, Tiberius, along with his brother-in-law by marriage, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, spend the next two years mopping up the remaining rebellious elements in the region, eventually joined by Drusus’ eldest son, Germanicus. They are successful and Germania is officially declared a Roman province beginning in 7 BC. But you can see that this comes about not because the Cherusci and their allies had been won over to the Roman way, but rather because Octavius enjoyed the services of loyal, competent family members he could trust to win battles and not run away with their spoils on him.

Incidentally, Domitius Ahenobarbus gets a lot of flak (including from yours truly in my books), because he appears to have been the genetic source for many of his grandson Nero’s less savory personality traits— Suetonius calls him “arrogant, cruel, notorious, and extravagant.” But despite never being in the running for Miss Congeniality in Octavius’ extended family, he does deserve some credit for consistently staying in his lane. He seems to have understood that he was not the most brilliant member of the group and was able to remember he literally owed everything he had to Octavius. He therefore spent his (very long, he died at the age of 74) life doing what Octavius needed him to do and not screwing that up very much. Reputations among the Julio-Claudians were often built on much less.

Although it is technically a province, Germania is still very much the frontier, so for many of its early years, it is run with a sort military governorship as Rome will do later in Judaea. Perhaps because of his hardline personality, and his experience in both the civilian and military arms of Roman government, Ahenobarbus helms this show for several years and successfully keeps the peace. Segimerus is effectively shunted from tribal power because of his capitulation to the Romans, and his sons receive the sort of care and education other hostage princes received before and after them. Like Juba of Mauretania a generation before, Arminius and Flavus were also given Roman military training, with Arminius even being elevated to equs rank. And like Juba, when the boys reached adulthood, they were released and allowed to return to their people on the far side of the Rhine. The idea of course being that having experienced the benefits of a Roman education, the boys would take that back to the Cherusci and help the Germans acclimatize to Roman dominion.

And that was certainly needed by then. The northern Germans had never fully acquiesced to the Roman presence in their lands and most of the agreements reached between them and Italy had started to come apart in the five years since the Cherusci princes had been sent to Rome. Tiberius spends much of the two years between 4 AD and 6 AD fighting the Cherusci’s neighbors, including a massive revolt by the aforementioned Maroboduus and the Macromanni that requires the massing of an almost unheard-of thirteen legions (almost 100,000 men) to put down.

But remember how I said even Rome couldn’t fight a multi-front war? Well, no sooner are the Macromanni subdued, than a revolt sweeps the entire Illyrian peninsula. The provinces of Illyria and Pannonia had always been trouble spots for the empire, as the topography of the region is unforgiving and its tribes as generally unassimilated into Roman provincial life as many of the Germanic tribes. Roman relied on the client kingdom of Thrace to hem in its unruly neighbors, but the king of Thrace, Rhoemetalces I, while loyal to Rome, was no match for the entire peninsula. Maroboduus is allowed to remain with his people because Tiberius now has bigger fish to fry than the duplicitous Macromanni. He, Germanicus, and all legions that can be spared are sent to put down what will become known as the Bellum Batonianum, after two of the rebel leaders named Bato.

So, despite all of the rumblings of discontent in Germania, the Pannonian situation leaves only five or six legions to patrol the long borders of Gaul and Germania. Shuttling between the Roman outposts of Colonia Agrippinensis (modern Cologne) and Vetera (modern Xanten) were some combination of the I Germanica (at this point in its history still known as the I Augusta), the V Alaudae, the XXI Rapax, and three Germanica legions. The first three legions above were legends in their own time; the I Augusta had fought with Pompey at Pharsalus before being adopted by Octavius, while the Alaudae and Rapax (literally the Rapacious Legion) were old Caesarian legions with vaunted campaign histories. We’ve already mentioned the Alaudae and their famous elephant insignia in my pets entry. Comparatively, the three other legions, the XVII, XVIII, and XIX Germania, were relatively unheralded. Formed during Caesar’s dictatorship, they seem to have spent their history fighting the ongoing German wars with Drusus and Tiberius, unlike the older legions they served with, whose histories crisscross the Mediterranean.

With the other Julio-Claudian men bogged down in Pannonia, Tiberius suggests to Octavius that he sends another family member, Publius Quinctilius Varus, to keep an eye on things in Germania. In his fifties, Varus had been a partisan of Octavius’ for most of his long public career, a loyalty he was rewarded for by being allowed to marry one of Octavius’ great-nieces, Claudia Pulchra (daughter of Claudia Marcella the Younger). Varus’ service was mostly on the civilian side of the coin, but his reputation amongst Rome’s less-cooperative provinces rivaled anything that was said of Domitius Ahenobarbus. He was known for high taxes and harsh laws while governor of Syria, and when Herod the Great of Judaea died in 4 BC, Varus was the one who was called in to put down the messianic Jewish revolt that sprung up in the dead king’s wake. Varus’ tactics, including the brutal crucifixion of two thousand of the rebels, would trigger the next century of embittered Jewish resistance against Roman rule. In short, Varus was no neophyte to tough situations, nor was he afraid to use force. He appeared to be just the sort of governor who could handle the volatile German province.

So, Varus set up shop north of the Rhine with the XVII, XVIII, and XIX Germania, leaving his nephew (and dependable Lucius Calpurnius Piso’s son-in-law) Lucius Nonius Asprenas at Vetera with the V Alaude and the XXII Rapax (or the I Augusta— coming events would leave the European legions scrambling around and tracking exactly who was where became difficult for a few months). He relied heavily on the advice of the newly-returned Arminius, who still served as a foreign auxiliary in one of the legions, on how best to negotiate with the Cherusci and their allies and everything goes along well for a while. The problem was that Varus wasn’t the only person Arminius was negotiating with…

Rather than settling in to being a loyal philosopher king like Juba of Mauretania, Arminius (whose Germanic name is usually given as Ermann or Erminz) had no intention of playing nice with his Roman overlords. He found his disgraced father Segimerus, and began mobilizing the discontented chieftains into an alliance in order to expel the Romans out of Cherusci lands, all the while pretending to be Varus’ right hand man. He was able to pull even longtime Cherusci enemies like the Chatti into a coalition in part because he could spin the other German chiefs grisly tales of what Varus would do to them if he was allowed to rule them unchecked. Some of the more pro-Roman chieftains, like Segestes, tried to warn Varus not to trust the young prince, but Arminius had clearly learned his lessons well during his captivity in Rome and convinced even an old hand like Varus of his good intentions. Easy enough to do when he could brush off Segestes’ warnings as spite for Arminius marrying the older chieftain’s daughter, Thusnelda, against her father’s wishes. 

So, taking advantage of the massively decreased legionary presence in Germania because of the Pannonian revolt, the Cherusci and their allies began to make their move. Arminius then waited until early September in 9 AD, when Varus began to move the XVII, XVIII, and XIX across the Weser from their summer camp to their winter headquarters on the Rhine to spring his trap. While the legions were on the march, a slow affair because as this was a non-tactical march accompanied by supply wagons and all of the attending camp servants and followers, Arminius informed Varus of a sudden local revolt. This was entirely untrue, but Varus saw neither a reason to doubt his ally, nor regroup his forces into combat formation to quash this minor uprising. This left the three Germania legions straggling along in a loose formation stretching around ten miles back to front as they entered the boggy and narrowly-cleared forests of Teutoburg around modern Osnabrück.

This is where they were ambushed by Arminius’ coalition forces, who had been lying in wait for them to arrive. The Germans used their superior numbers and familiarity with this inhospitable environment to completely overwhelm the unprepared legions. Recent stormy weather had left the forests dark and wet, and it took time for the Roman infantry to understand that not only were they being attacked by an enemy hiding in the trees, but that their own German auxiliaries had turn about and joined them. The legions were thrown into total disarray as they and their baggage had no choice but to attempt to flee an enemy who had been expertly coached in all of their tactics. Catastrophic rains hampered the retreat that continued through the night, but some semblance of the legions were able to reach the Wielen Hills to set up a temporary fortification to fend off the Cherusci.

But Varus was still in open, enemy territory and not really in a position to make a stand with his terrified legions that had already suffered heavy losses. He seems to have decided his only hope to salvage his forces was to continue marching them west in the hopes of reaching his winter camp where he could establish a more suitable base. Unfortunately for him, Arminius had anticipated this, too.

The stunned legions were eventually able to march out of the woods to a small open stretch of semi-arable land that was flanked by the forest on one side and a hill called Kalkriese on the other. This is where Arminius had set his second trap, placing soldiers in the trees behind a trench and building an embankment near the hill to shelter the six thousand-some berserkers he had waiting for the legions to arrive.

It was a bloodbath. Hemmed in by geography and a continuing torrential downpour, the legions were surrounded by Cherusci on all sides who were not interested in quarter. A few legionaries attempted to make a desperate last stand at the embankment, but there was nowhere to go. Officers fell on their swords to avoid the fates of those caught by the Germans, who burned them in gibbets from the trees or nailed their heads to the trunks. In addition to troops killed outright by the Germans, a large number of soldiers and camp followers had fled away from this second ambush only to be swallowed up by a large stretch of swamp beyond the tree line. The three legions were obliterated, their precious standards captured (the ultimate disgrace), and Roman death toll of these two days was somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 men, in addition to the uncounted camp followers.

Somewhere in the melee Varus was either killed outright, or like his officers, committed suicide. This might seem like an evasion on his part, but in reality he couldn’t go back to Rome anyway, where he likely would have been forced to commit suicide or executed for such an apocalyptic military disaster. Arminius was able to recover Varus’ body, which he had decapitated and sent the head to Maroboduus over in Macromanni-Land, as both a humblebag and as an offer of alliance. However, Maroboduus was not interested — probably because he had just got out of a huge war with Rome, and additionally had zero interest in getting into an alliance where he’d have to pay any kind of homage to Arminius. So, he sent Varus’ head back to the Cherusci and suggested Arminius send the head onto Rome before it rotted beyond recognition.

Varus’ head and the news of the disaster in Teutoburg Forest hit Rome like a thunderclap. The Pannonian revolt had been winding down, and the city had started to breathe out again with that threat nearly dealt with. Then the empire found out that three whole legions of Rome’s precious defenses had been completely destroyed in the back of beyond in Germania. According to Suetonius, Octavius who was famous for his sangfroid in the face of every misfortune, was inconsolable. Over seventy years old by this point and at the end of several long and difficult years in the empire, Octavius supposedly raged at Varus for days in absentia, crying, “Quintili Vare, legiones redde!” (“Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!”) and spawning a thousand memes…

After Teutoburg, the numbers seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen were considered so unlucky it would be generations before any would be used again by another Roman legion. But Arminius achieved his goal, because the battle halted Roman expansion beyond the Rhine for the time being, and luckily for Rome, he had little interest in challenging Rome’s remaining legions in the south or marching on the city as their Germanic descendants would in later centuries. Upon his ascension to the throne in 14 AD, Tiberius would lead the retaliatory wars that would put many of the victors of Teutoburg back under some form of Roman control, and Arminius himself would be assassinated by rival chieftains in 21 AD. But the effects of his revolt would remain a potent symbol of Germanic pride well into the modern era, and Varus’ fate was a cautionary tale to generals throughout the long history of the Roman Empire as to the power of an unseen adversary.

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