On This Day in History, September 9th AD 9 | Teutoburg Forest
You’ve heard of the “Teutoburg disaster”, right? It’s kinda infamous if you like brushing up on your history stuff, particularly so if you are pro- or anti- Roman. It’s so touted as an example of anti-Roman rule, that it can be somewhat overdone. Or, to quote one Roman-o-phile I know; “I’m sick of hearing about bloody Teutoburg.”
And I kind of understand that, particularly the tendency to then fall into college schoolboy speak: “yeah, boyeee, we kicked yo asses right outta Germany, bitch! YEAH!” *chestbump*
But let’s tell the true story here, let’s take ourselves back to Ancient Rome and the newly acquired province of Germania. Yes, “Germania.” This was the Roman and Greek term for the geographical region in north-central Europe inhabited mainly by barbaric, unwashed gits (I kid! I kid!), it extended from the Danube in the south to the Baltic Sea, and from the Rhine in the west to the Vistula. The Roman portions formed two provinces of the Empire, Germania Inferior to the north (present-day Netherlands), and Germania Superior to the south (Switzerland, southwestern Germany, eastern France).
It hadn’t always been this way.
Only a few decades earlier and these were tumultuous times. Heck, we’re talking about the Romans here; every day was “tumultuous times,” but here it was “tumultuous” in the form of six feet tall, hairy, barbarian types throwing axes around like they’re “welcome to the neighborhood gift cookies.” The tribes across the east bank of the Rhine constantly felt like the grass was greener on the other side, or at least “richer,” and they just wouldn’t keep to themselves. Raids were common and culminated in the governor of Gallia Belgica, Marcus Lollius, getting his assed kicked in the summer of 16 BC, when the Sugambri decided they’d had enough of the fifth Alaudae hanging around, had a few drinks, and promptly ended up curbed stomping them into a fine puree.
And the fifth wasn’t exactly a pushover; we’re talking about one of Caesar’s bravest legions, veterans of the Gallic Wars and plenty of time under Marc Anthony, to boot. Not only did the fifth Alaudae get their faces pummeled, but they managed to lose their eagle in the bargain, and losing your eagle was, like, the ultimate disgrace. Remember this, ‘cos it’s kinda of a theme around these parts.
It was probably this little event that caused emperor Augustus to rub his manly chin and conclude “hm, maybe things are still a little unstable over there?” followed swiftly with a “Drusus, my boy, head on over, will you, and deliver a little Pax Romana on the tip of a few pilum heads, thanks very much!”
Over the next few years, the Romans reorganized along the Rhine, and basically put the iron shod caligae footprint of a military zone all up in its business. The XVII, XVIII, and XIX legions were set to defend the border – remember these guys, they feature later – while a second army group, consisting of the V Alaudae and I Germanica were set to become an expeditionary force of sorts. And by “expeditionary force,” I mean they’d be the first to jump the Rhine to land a righteous fist of civilized justice to the bearded mug of any muck dweller unlucky enough to be in the way.
In 12 BC, Drusus elbowed the Sugambri into submission, kneed the Frisians and Chauci in the wedding tackle, and snagged backed the eagle. All in time to return back across the Rhine in time for a smoked kipper breakfast.
But he wasn’t done.
The following year, he crossed again, mad-dogged anyone who caught his eye, and plopped down a large military base near Oberaden and homed 3 legions there. And if something is going to leave the message of “we’re not done here,” then it’s 3 legions on your front lawn.
The Lippe valley was considered “pacified” at this point.
The following year, Drusus again stomped around the country elbowing any bearded face to poke its ugly mug from beyond the treeline, and was feeling all kinds of smug when he fell of his horse and caught a dose of bodily death syndrome. He was but 29.
In stepped his brother, Tiberius.
Tiberius had a slightly different attitude to Germania, as he felt the country too poor to really bother with. But, heck, the legions were there now, and you can’t exactly pull them out, right? That might look bad.
So in the years of 9 BC and 8 BC, Tiberius attacked the Sugambri again (‘cos “screw those guys”) and promptly kicked it in the meat-and-two-veg until it transformed itself into a peaceful, normal, tax-paying province.
The only part between the Elbe, Rhine and Danube that remained unconquered was the kingdom of Maroboduus, the leader of the Marcomanni, who lived in Bohemia. But Tiberius had eight legions worth of “Roman Solution” for that particular problem, and would have been all over it like a bad rash, if it hadn’t been for a pesky Pannonian rebellion that caused Tiberius to go in a different direction.
Still, by the time of AD 1, the Roman Empire had subdued all of continental Europe west of the Danube and south and west of the Rhine. Its armies had conquered North Africa from Morocco to Egypt, as well as Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), parts of Syria, and Palestine. The imperial navy had turned the Mediterranean into a Roman lake, and everywhere around the rim of the empire, Rome’s defeated enemies trembled in fear of her legions.
Or did they?
The tribes of Germania were now full-on trading with the Roman Empire; iron, cattle, slaves, and foodstuffs went out in exchange for silver coins and luxury goods. A few tribes even pledged allegiance to Rome and German mercenaries served in the Roman armies as far away as the present-day Czech Republic.
All was calm. The sun was shining. Laughter could be heard all over the nation.
Enter the story: Publius Quinctilius Varus.
Varus, 55, was a noble from a patrician family, and was linked by marriage to the imperial family. He had served as Emperor Augustus’ representative in the province of Syria, where he had quelled ethnic disturbances, and he was the fourth most important person in the Roman world of this time. His credentials screamed “just the man to bring Roman civilization to the barbarous tribes of Germany.”
The problem was, he was an administrative official and not a general. Which is fine, right, in a new province that needed the steady hand of a strong governor vs. the all-conquering boot of a soldier.
The only problem that could possibly occur would be if Varus pissed off the tribes and caused some form of revolt. Or maybe if governorship turned into war.
Yeah … so … about that.
The problem with Varus was, to coin an Englishism: he was a right twat.
He tended to treat subjected nations as if they were slaves of the empire, and that sort of attitude comes bundled with all sorts of “fun.” He was ruthless, cruel, was known to crucify insurgents, and wrapped all of this in a cuddly ball of arrogance.
He had no respect for the Germanic culture, and decided that the best way to lure a new province into the welcoming bosom of Rome herself was through a policy of toe-curling-taxation.
Not surprisingly, the tribes of Germany started to wonder wtf they had gotten into bed with. Even those allied with Rome started to rethink things. The others? Yeah, they started to get downright unruly.
But, hell, as long as the German tribes didn’t have a banner to rally around, it might blow over, right?
This is Arminius, or “Hermann the German”. Born around 17 or 18 BC, he was the son of the Cheruscan chief Segimerus. Because the Romans loved to take such sons and train them up in Roman military schools as part of their integration processes, Arminius had gotten the training of a military commander and attained Roman citizenship before he headed back home, apparently spewing with desire to kick in the faces of the Roman overlords. It’s that bearded chin: you can’t look like that without wanting to stud all over the place.
Maybe he just hated the Romans. Maybe he wanted to be king over all of the tribes. Whatever was going on in his head, Arminius contacted the Germanic tribes of the Cherusci, the Marsi, the Chatti, the Bructeri, the Chanci, and the Sicambri, and hatched the seeds of a cunning plan.
At face value, the scheme was delightfully straight-forward: report a fictitious “uprising” in territory unfamiliar to the Romans, lead them into a deadly ambush, jump out of the shadows with a skull-splitting “hulloooo!”, and curb-stomp the olive gnashers into a fine red puree.
But there were a couple of problems.
Firstly, the Roman legions were buzz-saws of righteous, military-precision, fury. Stand in front of one of these and you could be waving goodbye to your wedding tackle faster than Lorena Bobbitt’s husband after a stag party weekend at Vegas.
But this was all dependent on them having room to do their cohort-thing; Testudo? Not in the middle of a forest, buddy!
And herein lay the key to that particular dilemma: a 60 mile long patch of treant infested, vine-choked, hell that just happened to also be on very uneven ground. Welcome to the Teutoburg Wald. Also home to a large population of many different Germanic tribes, most of whom hostile to Rome.
Shank a Roman here and he’d be too busy trying to figure out how to get next to his buddy to actually stop you caving in his skull.
The second problem Arminius had, though, was in the form of tattle-tale snitches. You can’t just go around talking about your cunning plan, no matter how cunning it is, without running the risk of tipping your hand to the enemy.
You see, not all of the Germanic tribes got along together – as is the human nature – and remember I have already mentioned how some of them were outright allied to the Romans. So here you have a barbarian git … I mean, a glorious German nationalist … running around talking about how he was going to punch the Romans in the kisser; OF COURSE word got into the hands of someone who wasn’t down with the plan. This man was a rival chieftain, Segestes.
It’s uncanny how much he looked like Tom Hardy. But there you go, pictures don’t lie.
Segestes – whose daughter was married to Arminius – had a counter-plan: tell Publius Quinctilius Varus what was going on and watch the fireworks as the Roman forces bring down the righteous hammer of Pax-your-face-Romana.
Segestes: Oi, Varus, got news for you.
Varus: Indeed? Do share, oh noble chieftain.
Segestes: Arminius is planning on betraying you.
Segestes: Uh … no … it’s true … he is going to ambu-
Varus: Pfft! He is a friend of Rome, we taught him all of our ways, he would never betray us!
Except Varus didn’t believe him. Segestes issued multiple warning and Varus didn’t believe one of them.
And pay heed of this, because this is where things start to unravel for the Romans.
During the summer of AD 9, Varus threw his legions around like a war flail made from barbarian skulls. All sorts of small rebellions were put down, so by the time winter started to approach, the three legions (the XVII, XVIII, and XIX), six independent cohorts of auxiliaries, and three squadrons of cavalry had earned themselves a bit of a rest.
Which was really fortunate timing, because various helpless communities scattered about the province all started to put in requests for Varus to put legionaries in them for the winter period … you know, protect them from robbers, escort provision trains, and that type of thing, you know? Not for the purpose of splitting up his forces with the intent of executing them, oh no … that would be just barbaric.
While Varus took the best part of 20,000 men and camp followers to his own winter quarters, he started to receive reports of even more uprisings … the sort of thing that needed his attention. Except these reports were a complete and utter fabrication by Arminius himself. Who then suggested that Varus and his legions should move through the unfamiliar Teutoburg Forest to accelerate the march.
What could possibly go wrong?
Segestes: No, really, Varus … Arminius is not to be trus-
Varus: ENOUGH! LIAR! LAHLAHLAH CAN’T HEAR YOU.
Arminius: Thanks Varus, I love you. Say, I’m going to ride on out ahead of the legions and will gather some troops to help out, cool?
Varus: I love you, too. Sounds like a great plan. Don’t be long, miss you already! Bro bump!
Arminius: Psst, father-in-law, I have a jail cell with your name written all over it.
As Varus and his legions headed out, Arminius headed on out to “fetch more troops,” and, somewhere distant, all those little garrisons sprinkled across Germanic villages were butchered like dogs.
Arminius had left instructions with the Romans to make “a short detour”, a one- or two-day march, directly into the territory of the rebels. There was nothing but rudimentary trails meandering through farmsteads, fields, pastures, bogs, and forests. The Roman marching line was already eight miles long, but snaking its way along this “shortcut” it became even more extended.
Three legions, auxiliaries, and camp followers with carts aplenty, literally had to chop down trees, build roads, and lay down bridges.
The march became dangerously stretched out.
And then it started to rain. Not your piddly shit, either, I’m talking torrents of flesh shredding “the heavens have opened” wet-misery, accompanied with high winds as an extra slice of “sucks to be you.” It was as if the Germanic gods were in on the plan.
The ground became soggy, slippery, and treacherous. The extended march? Yeah, that was beginning to lose all semblance of anything military related. It was a loose migration of thousands of people generally ambling in the same direction.
And all around them the Germanic tribes started to surround them and close in.
But no worries, right? ‘cos Varus’ scouts would give him plenty of notice of incoming trouble.
Except Varus didn’t send out any scouts. He was marching blind.
The shit was about to hit the fan.
With fog, rain, trees, hills, and lord knows what else effectively rendering the stretched out Roman column completely oblivious to anything but their immediate surroundings, Arminius slipped away and joined the Germanic tribes. And then, recalling all of his knowledge of Roman tactics, he signaled the attack, driving the tribes exactly where he knew the column would be at its weakest and unable to effectively respond.
The German tribesmen slammed into the dispersed Romans and started to tear them up; lightly armed and armored, they could pick their timing, points, and peel away into the trees anytime. The Romans – their true strength being massed formations – were completely caught off guard and were too busy tripping over tree roots to actually do anything about it.
And the Germans didn’t stop in their attack all day.
It is amazing, that under these circumstances the Romans were able to construct a night camp as darkness fell, but it gave little respite. Men had thrown away or lost their gear in the fighting, plenty were without tents, campfires couldn’t be lit in the rain, and so with the cold creeping in, the rain falling, and thousands of howling barbarians all around them, the Romans tried to get some rest. Like that was going to be a thing.
The following morning, Varus gathered up his forces, gave them a pep talk, and admitted it was a completely messed up situation: it was time to head back out of the forest and to safety.
I kid, I kid! They pushed even deeper into the hell hole. But only after burning most of their wagons and non-essential supplies. And what screams “dude, you’re so screwed” more than a horde of barbarians trying to skewer your face from the woods? Doing it without your gear, that’s what!
Back into the forest the Romans plunged, and back to skull crushing went the German tribes. Losses were heavy for the embattled Roman forces, and the fighting was fierce. The German ranks had actually swollen overnight (“What? The Romans are not unbeatable after all? Let me at ‘em!”)
The third day dawned, and with it a heavy downpour and violent winds. I mean, jeez, could this get any more freaking miserable? Now the legionaries were unable to hurl pila or use their water logged shields. The situation was beyond hopeless.
Onwards the Romans pushed, losing men, equipment, and body parts along the way. But eventually, miraculously, they reached the valley of the Ems, where a former governor had constructed pontes longi between Ems and Lippe; an actual, full on, Roman road passing through surrounding swamps.
But the tribes and the Germanic gods were far, far from done with these guys.
Unfortunately for the Romans, Arminius had his men spending the nights cutting ditches through roads and felling trees to create only one distinct route the Romans could take. This route was lined with soldiers and earth walls. When Varus marched out of camp he unwittingly went straight through the path Arminius had set for him and met a dead end at the base of a hill.
The Romans were now utterly exhausted, which was the queue for the Germans to smash them with all of their weight. What happened next was an almost complete breakdown of the Roman army.
At one point a cavalry commander – Vala – thought “screw this for a lark!” and led his men on a mad charge for freedom, only to get swarmed by barbarians and hacked to pieces. I’d say “shit was out of control,” but in all truth it was never in control. This was a helpless mauling.
Vala Numonius, lieutenant of Varus, […] set a fearful example in that he left the infantry unprotected by the cavalry and in flight tried to reach the Rhine with his squadrons of horse. But fortune avenged his act, for he did not survive those whom he had abandoned, but died in the act of deserting them.
The Romans attempted to overcome the earthen wall, but they were either repulsed, or – if they did get to the other side – they quickly regretted it, were overwhelmed, and butchered into a hamburger meat.
So Varus grabbed two swords, wiped blood from his face, and charged into the surrounding barbarians, hacking apart the entire lot.
Nah, nah he didn’t.
He killed himself.
Yeah. He led his men into this clusterfuck and, seeing how screwed they were, he offed himself. What a guy.
You can only imagine what this did to morale.
Not surprisingly, plenty of Romans started to follow suit, but failed attempts at escape, or desperate bids to surrender started to sweep the Roman ranks.
And if you are now thinking “man, this is messed up!” well, you’d be correct, but it was also going to get nothing but worse.
A surrendering legionary found no sympathy in the German ranks, had his eyes gouged out and his mouth sewn shut; ‘cos, you know, “screw those Romans.”
Arminus, receiving the Roman’s surrender offer, called on his countrymen to stay their weapons. The command spread, and across the battlefield the fighting came to a halt and the din of battle subsided. Only the groans of the wounded could be heard, as all eyes turned to Arminius. Perhaps several hundred Romans still lived; on the command of the Varus’ successor, they threw down their weapons. Heavy chains were brought out by the Germans and the prisoners bound.
The centurions and thin-striped tribunes were separated from their men, then thrust into pits which the rank and file had been forced to dig. Realizing that the Germans planned painful deaths for them, junior tribune Caldus Caelius, ‘a young man worthy in every way of a long line of ancestors,’ took a section of the chain with which he was bound and crashed it down on his skull with all his might, causing instant death; with ‘both his brains and his blood gushing from the wound.’
He probably did the right thing.
Junior centurions were crucified in front of their men. Thin-striped tribunes and first-rank centurions were dragged away to sacred groves, where they were placed inside giant wicker cages in the shape of men. These cages were suspended over a feiry altar, and the victims were roasted alive.
And this is how the remaining officers of the 17th, 18th, and 19th legions died; roasted like game on a spit.
Caldus Caelius had the right idea, me thinks.
Losses for the Germans are estimated around 1,000. The Romans? 20,000. Only 1,000, led by camp prefect Caedicius, were able to escape.
The battle standards of the three annihilated legions – the eagles – fell into the hands of the Germans, a deeply humiliating act. Later Roman expeditions recovered two of the three standards late in the year 16, while the other was restored to the army in AD 42.
The shame and humiliation of the destruction of the XVII, XVIII, and XIX legions was so great, their numbers were removed from the Roman orders of battle, although it is a popular misconception that they were never reconstituted, and while this is true for the most part, the XVIII was actually re-used in later years.
Now, don’t get caught up in the rhetoric that over hypes this battle … I mean, “slaughter,” … as the Romans had lost before, would lose again, and had seen similar numbers in casualties (or even worse!). The Romans would even be back into Germania in later years to enact a very bloody revenge.
Around 10 percent of the imperial army had been wiped out virtually overnight, and the myth of its invincibility had been utterly shattered. When news of this disaster reached Augustus back in Rome, he lost his shit; he tore his clothing to pieces, slammed his head against the walls of his palace, and screamed, “Quintili Vare! Legiones redde!” (Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions). Apparently for month he didn’t cut his hair and would often be heard muttering the same phrase over and over.
Roman bases in Germany were hastily abandoned, and Augustus – dreading Arminius would march on Rome – expelled Germans and Gauls from the city of Rome.
This carnage in Teutoburg Wald marked the empire reaching its limits, Rome accepted that some places were just not worth the hassle, and Germania would always keep some of her independence after this. This resulted in a militarized frontier in the middle of Europe that endured for 400 years, and it created a boundary between Germanic and Latin cultures that lasted much, much longer. Without this, almost all of modern Germany would have come under Roman rule. German, as a language, would have been marginalized, and Latin would have become more prominent towards the north; Saxons speaking Latin, anyone? The Thirty Years’ War might never have occurred, and the long, bitter conflict between the French and the Germans might never have been a thing.
This is the memorial to Centurion Marcus Caelius of the 18th Legion, and his two freedmen, who perished in the ambush of Varus’ legions in Germany. It is 54 inches high and shows a fierce looking Caelius, adorned with all of his military decorations and holding his centurion’s vine stick. On either side are his two servants, Privatus and Thiaminus. Both carry his name, indicating that they were freedmen. In all likelihood they also died at Teutoburg.
It was erected by Caelius’ brother beside the Rhine, with the request that if his bones were ever found they be laid to rest there. But Caelius’ whitening bones laid across the Rhine, on a silent, deserted battlefield in the Teutoburg Forest, indistinguishable from those of thousands of his fellow soldiers who had been left to rot by the victors of the battle. Caelius’ monument and his bones would never be reunited.
This has been a guest post by Alyssa Faden. She writes an hilarious and excellent blog on all things military history at http://www.catchthispilum.com If you enjoyed this, and I know I did, go check out her site! ~ER