Reconstruction of palisade. The building of this palisade is indicative of Arminius’s careful planning, as was his use of terrain to nullify the superior equipment and training of the Romans.
Date: autumn AD 9 Location: Kalkriese, Germany
In the field, the bones of the soldiers lay scattered about, each where he had fallen either standing his ground or trying to flee. There were bits of weapons, and the bones of horses amongst them, and human heads had been nailed to the trunks of the surrounding trees. TACITUS, ANNALS, 1.61
- c.35,000 men
- Commanded by Arminius
- Unknown casualties
- 20,000 men
- Commanded by Publius Quintilius Varus
- 20,000 dead, plus c. 3,000 civilians
In the early years of the 1st century AD the emperor Augustus tried to bring Germany under his control. An unconquered Germany was uncomfortably close to Italy, and Augustus may have felt that a defensive line along the Elbe was easier to maintain than the current one along the Rhine.
By AD 9 Germany seemed sufficiently conquered for Augustus to send a governor whose main concern was the Romanization of the province. This was Quintilius Varus, former governor of Syria and husband of Augustus’s great-niece.
Varus commanded three legions – the XVII, XVIII and XIX. Also, some of the many tribes of Germany were allied with the Romans. Among the young German aristocrats who served with the Roman legions for military experience was Arminius, son of a chieftain of the Cherusci tribe.
Varus was unaware that the despoiling of his native land had made Arminius a bitter enemy of Rome. From the moment Varus arrived in Germany, Arminius plotted to unite the tribes and bring about the Roman leader’s downfall.
These tribes sent to Varus and asked for garrisons to be stationed with them. Varus agreed readily and sent detachments, thus weakening his main force. Finally, in AD 9 Arminius arranged for reports of trouble in a distant part of the province to reach Varus. It was now autumn, and Varus seems to have decided to move his whole camp and deal with the problem on his way to winter quarters. Another German leader, Segestes, pleaded passionately with Varus not to trust Arminius, but he was ignored.
Arminius’s guides led the Romans astray. Then the Germans attacked. Initially these attacks were pinpricks – ambuscades which melted at the first sign of serious resistance, and the threat seemed minor. The Romans had armour, equipment and training, while many Germans fought naked. Though some warriors had swords, others had merely a crude spear (the frameo), sometimes with only a fire-hardened wooden point. But the Romans were uncomfortable in the dense forest, and were made more miserable by a series of thunderstorms. Near modern Kalkriese, on the edge of the Wiehen hills north of Osnabrück, Arminius had prepared an ambush. Here, the forest extended almost to the edge of an impenetrable marsh. The Roman army was caught on the narrow stretch of land between the two when the Germans attacked.
The Romans were penned in by a wall at the forest edge. This was part-rampart, but mostly a fence woven with branches between the trees, of a type that the Germans used to stop their cattle from straying. The Romans were probably split into pockets by the first attack and unable to coordinate their efforts. In confused skirmishes and a running battle lasting several days, the trapped Romans were steadily worn down.
Varus was either killed or fell on his sword. Others followed his example, for the Germans had a grisly way with prisoners. In the end, not one single Roman survived. What we know of the battle is from reconstruct ions, the first by the Romans themselves, who returned to the scene a few years later. They found places where senior Roman officers had been messily sacrificed, and the bones of the dead scattered where they had fallen.
Gradually the site of the disaster was forgotten. A massive monument to the battle was eventually erected at Hiddesen, south of Detmold. This was some 50 km (31 miles) from the actual site of Teutoburg Forest, which was discovered very recently by Major Tony Clunn, an amateur archaeologist. He found Roman metal artifacts which suggested a battle, and professional archaeologists confirmed that this was the site of the Varusschlacht – where Varus’s legions had been destroyed. Arminius’s victory ensured that north west Europe had a Germanic rather than a Latin culture. This in turn profoundly affected subsequent European history, and thus the history of the world.