Reading H.A.L. Fisher’s “A History of Europe” I stumbled upon the battle of Teutoburg Forrest in 9 A.D. and started reading about it. This article is a compilation of my reading.
“In 6 AD the Roman view of the situation in Europe looked good. Gaul was peaceful and Germany appeared pacified and ready for taxation. Tiberius and Sentius Saturninus stood prepared to attack Rome’s last major European rival, the Marcomanni, led by their king Maroboduus. The attack never came about; rebellion erupted in Pannonia, requiring two thirds of the Roman army to put down and threatened the safety of Macedonia and Italy. Worse was to come. In 9 AD the Germans launched their own rebellion and defeated the Romans at Teutoburg Forest. The German victory at Teutoburg Forest, coupled with the rebellion of Pannonia brought an end to the period of Roman expansion and led to the formation of Roman frontiers.” (1)
Part of the battle site has recently been identified near Kalkriese, about 16 kms north of Osnabruck, in northern Germany.
At Detmold, believed to be the site of the battle, in 1875 they erected the statue of Arminius, the warrior who defeated Varus and thus sealed the border separating the Roman Empire from what is known today as Germany.
It is interesting to note that at the end of the 3rd – early 4th century A.D. while the Roman Empire was splitting into East and West, most of the soldiers in the Roman legions stationed in the various outposts of the Empire were Germans!
Varus and Arminius
“Why is there a Germany? Part of the answer goes back to a battle fought in A.D. 9 in the treacherous marshes and dense thickets of Teutoburg Forest, near modern Osnabrück. As described by the Roman historian Tacitus, three Roman legions led by Quinctilius Varus had crossed the Rhine from Gaul, intent on incorporating the vast area known as Germania into the empire. They were ambushed and annihilated by German tribes under the command of a warrior named Arminius. It was one of the worst military disasters the Romans ever suffered.” (4)
Varus was appointed as governor of Germania, probably in the autumn of 6 CE. The office of governor of Germania had been created in the years 16-13 BCE, when the Romans had organized the strip of land along the Rhine and Danube as a military zone. (The legions guarding the Rhine had, until then, served as occupation force in Gaul; the fact that they were now transferred to the river proves that Gaul had become a thoroughly romanized area.) The fortresses along the Rhine had served as base for the conquest of the east bank of the river.(7)
Varus himself committed suicide as his command was massacred around him, with few escaping. The emperor Augustus’s dying words were: ‘Varus, give me back my legions.’
When Roman power was advanced from the Rhine to the Elbe, Arminius had initially accepted the situation. He graduated to Roman citizenship – in those days a considerable honour – and a military command in the imperial auxiliaries. But by 9 AD, he was disgusted by what he saw as Roman oppression and secretly organized a revolt, which involved contingents from a large number of Germanic tribes. Even after this huge victory, Arminius won only temporary allegiance from his people. In the face of the Roman counterattack and his own aspirations to kingship, support melted away from him and towards his uncle Inguiomerus. First his family was taken captive and then he himself was eventually killed by his own people. (8)
In the modern era, he was turned anachronistically into a symbol of triumphant German nationalism, but the monument erected to him at Detmold in 1875 is 70 km south of the real battlefield.
Parenthesis: the discovery of the site
Tony Clunn is a retired major in the British Army. In the summer of 1987, he was attached to the Royal Tank Regiment in Osnabruck, Lower Saxony, in Germany. His hobby was to search for Roman coins with a metal detector. He asked Wolfgand Schlutter, the resident Archaeologist in Osnabruck, where to go. Schlutter suggested to try an area 20km north of Osnabruck. The site was first suggested by 19th-century historian Theodor Mommsen, one of the “founding fathers” of modern research into ancient history. Tony Clunn went ahead and discovered the site of the battle. His metal detector did a very good job indeed!
(Mommsen decreed in his 1899 will: “What I have been, or what I was supposed to have been, is nobody else’s business.”)
A battle that changed the course of world history
“According to accounts by two great chroniclers of Rome, Tacitus and Cassius Dio, in A.D. 9 a chieftain named Arminius led a mas-sive army of Germanic warriors—”barbarians” to the Romans—in the annihilation of some twenty thousand Roman soldiers. It was one of the most devastating defeats suffered by the Roman army The effects of this catastrophe were profound. It ended Rome’s designs on conquest farther east beyond the Rhine and resulted in the emperor Augustus’s decision to expand and strengthen a series of military bases along the Rhine frontier, creating a densely militarized zone in the middle of Europe. As the bases grew, towns were established near them, many of which became major centers of medieval and modern Europe, includ-ing Bonn, Cologne, Mainz, and Strasbourg. Furthermore, the Rhine remained the political and cultural boundary of the Roman world throughout the succeeding four centuries of the Roman Empire, and it has continued as a cultural, and often a political, boundary for the past two thousand years. The psycho-logical effect of the crushing defeat on Augustus and his successors contributed to their ending the policy of military expansion not just in Europe but in Africa and Asia as well. This battle truly changed the course of world history. “(2)
The military perspective
James Venckus, a US military analyst, summarizes the battle:
“Eighteen thousand Romans died as a result of their commander‘s mistakes.The Roman commander, Publius Quinctilius Varus, misunderstood his Germanic enemy and the operational environment. Varus negligently assumed a lax marching order. He also failed to adjust to his situation and recognize multiple factors from terrain to weather, which negated his legions abilities and placed them in a vulnerable position, resulting in the Roman massacre.” (3)
During the autumn of 14 A.D., the army of Germania Inferior unexpectedly invaded “free” Germania. The cause was probably that the soldiers were unquiet after the death of Augustus and the accession of Tiberius, and Germanicus, commander of the army and son of Tiberius’ brother Drusus, wanted to give them something else to think about. Tacitus describes Germanicus’ entry in Germania:
“Part of the cavalry, and some of the auxiliary cohorts led the van; then came the first legion, and, with the baggage in the center, the men of the twenty-first closed up the left, those of the fifth, the right flank. The twentieth legion secured the rear, and, next, were the rest of the allies.” [Tacitus, Annals, 1.51.2;tr. A.J. Church & W.J. Brodribb]
It is quite interesting to note how careful Germanicus was with protecting his flanks, something the Varus – most likely – failed to do.
Germanicus in Teutoburg
In the passages that follow, Tacitus recounts Germanicus and his men surveying the wasted battlefield of the Teutoburg Forest.
“Therefore a desire invaded Caesar (Germanicus) to pay the final honours to the soldiers and their general, and the whole army who was present there was moved to pity at the thought of their relatives and their friends, and finally at the thought of the vicissitudes of war and the lot of humanity. Once Caecina had been sent ahead in order to explore the hidden passes and to raise bridges and ramparts over the watery swamps and the deceitful plains, they went forth into the sorrowful places, mutilated in their look and in their memory. Here was the first camp of Varus, with its wide circumference and the measurements of its headquarters showing the toil of three legions; then, from the half-ruined tower and the meagre ditch, it became clear that only the remnants of the army had taken up position there: in the middle of the field were whitening bones, scattered or piled up in the places where the men had fled or had resisted. Shattered remains of weapons and the limbs of horses were lying all around, and there were also human heads, nailed to the trunks of trees. In the nearby groves were barbarian altars, at which they had slaughtered the tribunes and the centurions from the first rank. And the survivors of that massacre, who had escaped the battle or their chains, were relating that here the legates had fallen, there the standards had been captured; here was where Varus had received his first wound, there he had found death by his unlucky right hand and his own blow. They pointed out the mound at which Arminius had harangued the soldiers; how many gibbets for the captives there were; what the pits were; and how, in his arrogance, Arminius had mocked the standards and the eagles.
And so the Roman army, present there six years after the massacre, began to bury the bones of the three legions, although no-one knew whether he was burying the remains of someone unknown or of his own relative but, as they buried them all as though they were their close friends or their relatives, their rage against the enemy rose; they buried the men whilst sorrowing and hostile at the same time. Caesar was the first to place the turf on the raised mound, as a most gratifying honor to the dead and as an ally to the present grief. However, this act was forbidden by Tiberius, whether because he wanted to criticize all of Germanicus’ acts or because he believed that the sight of the slaughtered and unburied men would make the army more slow to battle and more frightened of the enemy; and he thought that a general who was endowed with the office of the augurate and with its very ancient ceremonies should not have polluted himself with the funeral rites.” (6)
Teutoburg and Napoleon
In the nineteenth century, the battle became a powerful national symbol. In 1806, the French army of Napoleon Bonaparte decisively beat the armies of the German states. The humiliation was too big for the Germans, who started to look to the battle in the Teutoburg Forest as their finest hour. As Napoleon spoke a romanic language and presented himself as a Roman emperor, it was easy for the Germans to remind each other that they had once before defeated the welschen Erbfeind – an untranslatable expression that refers to the Latin speaking archenemies of Germany. The Teutoburg Forest became the symbol of the eternal opposition between the overcivilised and decadent Latin and the creative and vital Germanic people, between old France and new Germany.
Tacitus’ Germania and the Nazis
‘The Romans had been bedeviled for years by the motley tribes they lumped together as Germans. Tacitus set out to describe them. In his telling, the Germans possessed “fierce blue eyes, tawny hair, huge bodies.” They prized freedom, scorned luxury and esteemed military courage above all else. They were a people of sturdy values for whom “good laws” were no substitute for “good habits.” In the land of the Germans, Tacitus writes, “nobody laughs off vice; and to corrupt and to be corrupted is not called ‘modern times.’ ” Pointedly, he observed that the Germans were “not tainted by intermarriage with any other nations” but rather existed “as a distinct unadulterated people that resembles only itself.”
In 1924, the young Heinrich Himmler read “Germania” while on a train trip. In his diary he evoked “the glorious image of the loftiness, purity and nobleness of our ancestors.” He vowed, “Thus shall we be again,” adding the ominous note, “or at least some among us.” The Nazi Party convention held in Nuremberg in 1936 featured a “Germanic Room” with Tacitean quotations. In 1943, Himmler sent troops to a palazzo in Italy where he believed the oldest manuscript of “Germania” was preserved. They didn’t find it. The manuscript made its way to Germany eventually — in 2009, for an exhibition marking the 2,000th anniversary of Arminius’ victory.’ (4)
2. Peter Wells, The Battle that stopped Rome
3. JAMES L. VENCKUS, LCDR, USN, ROME IN THE TEUTOBURG FOREST
4. Cullen Murphy, The Idea of Germany, From Tacitus to Hitler, The New York Times, June 10 2011
5. Teutoburg Forest, LIVIUS, Articles on Ancient History
6. Tacitus Annals 1.61-62 (contributed by Sophie Mansell), The Classical Anthology
7. Publius Quinctilius Varus, LIVIUS, Articles on Ancient History