A Brief History
On September 9, 9 A.D., Germanic tribes under the leadership of Arminius dealt an army of three Roman Legions and their auxiliaries a crushing and total defeat at Teutoburg Forest in what is now Germany. Called a “turning point in world history,” “Rome’s greatest defeat,” and “one of the most decisive battles recorded in military history,” the Battle of Teutoburg Forest ensured that the Romans would never go East of the Rhine River and the Germanic tribes in the East would not be subjugated by Rome.
The Romans were led by Publius Quinctilius Varus, a military commander and politician of some renown and one who had previously enjoyed some successes. Varus was the current Governor of Germania, and was also a brutal excuse for a Roman, having crucified 2000 Jewish rebels en masse in Jerusalem in 4 A.D., typical of his harsh rule in Judea, Africa, and Syria (other places where he served as Governor).
The leader of the Germanic tribes, Arminius, was trained militarily by the Romans and was the commander of a Roman auxiliary unit. In fact, Varus had been the mentor of Arminius, and thus believed Arminius when Arminius gave Varus false information about a revolt in Germany. Aminius, leading an unknown number of Germanic tribesmen, perhaps anywhere from 12,000 to 32,000, set an ambush for the 20,000 to 36,000 Romans.
The battle was a slaughter, and Varus took his own life when he saw that all was lost and capture was inevitable. Arminius cut off the head of Varus and sent it to King Marbod in Bohemia as a gift in order to encourage an alliance of King Marbod’s people with the forces of Arminius. Marbod declined the alliance, and sent the head of Varus to Rome. As many as 20,000 Romans were killed outright, with most of the rest of them taken prisoner and either ransomed or enslaved. Roman officers were sacrificed, often boiled in pots or burned alive. Many Romans, especially officers, committed suicide by falling on their swords to avoid torture. Amazingly, about 40 years after the battle the Roman Army operating in Germania found and freed a few of the Roman soldiers that had been taken prisoner at Teutoburg Forest, returning those men to Rome where they became the objects of sympathy.
Given the catastrophic news, Emperor Augustus of Rome is said to have beaten his head against a wall and wailed, “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my Legions!” Historians in Rome referred to the battle as “The Varian Disaster.”
The Romans were beaten at Teutoburg Forest through a combination of trickery and the fact that Arminius and many of his fighters had been trained and equipped by the Romans. Some Germans had even fought the battle in Roman uniforms and armor, with Roman weapons. Some Roman arrogance may have also played into the hands of Arminius as well, with Varus overconfident of beating the “barbarians.” Varus not only paid for his miscalculations with his life, but also with his ruined reputation and disruption of his family’s place in Roman society.
Question for students (and subscribers): Was the Battle of Teutoburg Forest the worst Roman defeat? If not, please tell us which defeat you believe was more thorough or more catastrophic. Also, please share any insights you have into this historically important battle in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Wells, Peter S. The Battle That Stopped Rome: Emperor Augustus, Arminius, and the Slaughter of the Legions in the Teutoburg Forest. W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.