One Of Rome’s Most Devastating Military Defeats Was Masterminded From Within

In 9 AD, Rome suffered one of her most devastating military defeats – an ambush in North-Western Germany that wiped out three legions on the march, in what they believed to be pacified territory. During the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, more than 10,000 Roman soldiers were killed or captured, and within a few years, the Romans would abandon their ambitions to add German territories east of the Rhine to the Empire. 

Map depicting Kalkriese, the modern-day location of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. Google Maps

The attack was masterminded by a German chieftain named Arminius, depicted in the top shot above, who had previously served as an auxiliary unit commander in the Roman army. This experience gave him all the knowledge he needed to inflict disaster on the Romans, while also exposing the potential dangers of native recruitment to the army, particularly to positions of trust and authority.

Rome in Germany

Roman imperial ambitions turned towards the German territories east of the Rhine in the mid 1st century BC. Julius Caesar conducted a brief expedition across the river in 56 BC, although this was more for propaganda purposes than any realistic aims of conquest. A few decades later, campaigns were being conducted in earnest during the reign of the first Roman emperor, Augustus. 

Progress was slow at times, with the Romans facing fierce resistance from many of the German tribes, but with persistence, they gained a foothold east of the Rhine. Many tribes were subdued and entered into a submissive alliance with the Romans, with many sending hostages to Rome as proof of their good intentions. The region was eventually secured by five Roman legions stationed on the Rhine, led by a series of high-status individuals appointed as Commander of the Rhine Legions, who would campaign during the summer months and garrison the river during the winter. Further additional support was provided by Roman forts, which were garrisoned by smaller sub-units, and served as outposts in the territory east of the river.

Map of the Roman province of Germania from 7 BC to 9 AD. ReMaps via Wikimedia Commons

By the early years of the 1st century AD, Roman towns were being constructed in the German territories, most notably Waldgirmes (about 30 miles north of Frankfurt). Roman-style markets were being held, and tribal disputes were even beginning to be resolved through Roman tribunals. The German people were, as the Roman historian Cassius Dio noted, “becoming different without knowing it,” with change tolerated as long as it came at a sufficiently slow pace.

German men were also being recruited into the Roman army, serving in ethnic auxiliary (non-citizen) units which were usually commanded by members of the elite drawn from their own tribes. Rome often recruited native warriors into the Roman army, partly to stop them from causing trouble in recently conquered territories, and partly in the hopes that they would encourage openness to living under Roman rule once they returned to their tribes after their service ended. By the Imperial period, the auxiliary units were becoming a vital part of the Roman army, without which it would struggle to function effectively across the large area of the empire which by then had to be garrisoned.

In 7 AD, a man named Publius Quinctilius Varus was appointed as commander of the Rhine Legions, and possibly also as the first formal governor of the region. He was an experienced soldier and administrator who was also a long-term friend (and relative-by-marriage) of Emperor Augustus. His aim was to consolidate, and perhaps expand, Roman territorial acquisitions east of the Rhine, while also encouraging the development of a civic administration in the region. He would work closely with tribal leaders who had served in the Roman army and were considered to be allies of Rome.

Coin portrait of Publius Quinctilius Varus struck 8/7 BC in Africa. CNG coins

Publius Quinctilius Varus expected little resistance from a German population that had been subject to Roman rule for several decades with no major uprising. However, within a few years, the error of these assumptions would become apparent. 

Prelude to battle

The German chieftain Arminius, a member of the Cherusci tribe, became an ally of Rome c. 11 BC after territorial conquests in the tribe’s region. The Cherusci chief, Segimer, was required to send his sons Arminius and Flavus to Rome as hostages for the benefit of his tribe. They learned to speak Latin, likely received an elite education in the city, and as adults were given Roman citizenship. Both brothers served in the Roman army for a period from c. 1 AD, likely as commanders of auxiliary units recruited from the Cherusci tribe. 

After a few years, Arminius returned to Germany to take the chieftainship following the death of his father, while Flavus remained in the army. Arminius became a trusted member of Varus’ provincial staff, accompanying him on campaigns, as well as socializing with the Roman authorities in his leisure time. There were no grounds for Roman doubts about his loyalty – in fact, Arminius seemed like the perfect advert for the system of winning the loyalty of the provincial ruling classes by raising them in Rome and getting them to serve in the Roman army before they returned home as tribal leaders.

Arminius depicted in a late nineteenth century painting by Johannes Gehrts. Lippisches Landesmuseum via Wikimedia Common

Unfortunately for Varus and Rome, Arminius was not as loyal as they had assumed. Instead, he planned to lead an uprising against Rome, intending to permanently drive the Roman presence back to the other side of the Rhine. His strategy appears to have been to substantially reduce the Roman military manpower in Germany in one large engagement, aiming then to overwhelm the remaining garrisons through speed and force.

The conspiracy grew over time, with many German chieftains and their men committing to the attack. It is also likely that some of the Germans serving as auxiliary soldiers in the Roman army also sided with Arminius and planned to defect when the attack came. Rumors of the plot reached sufficiently far that one German, named Segestes, attempted to caution Varus about the imminent attack – only to find his warning dismissed, as Varus was so sure of Arminius’ loyalty.

The major opportunity to avoid disaster had been lost.

In the summer of 9 AD, Varus took three of the five Rhine legions on an expedition deep into the territories east of the Rhine, likely establishing a summer camp somewhere in the vicinity of Minden. After a summer spent dispensing justice rather than warfare, he prepared to return his men to their winter bases on the Rhine, when news came of a localized rebellion somewhere beyond the lands of the Cherusci. Varus seemingly decided to divert his route to the Rhine and confront the problem before it had time to grow over a winter of inattention. 

However, the reports of revolt among a distant tribe were a ruse, intended to blind Varus to a threat much closer to home, fermented among the elites of tribes the Romans believed pacified and who they thought were allied to Rome.

19th century illustration of Arminius rallying the Cherusci against Roman forces. Danno via Wikimedia Commons

Arminius aimed to lure Varus and his legions into an ambush within the Cherusci lands, where, unaware of the imminent attack, they would march in a disordered and undisciplined manner, believing themselves to be perfectly safe from harm. The soldiers did not maintain battle readiness during the march, and the camp followers, including women and children, were allowed to mix with the fighting force as they advanced. There were no roads in the region, leaving Varus reliant on his German guides to steer him safely through a landscape that was largely inhospitable by Roman standards – heavily forested, punctuated by large marshy areas and steep hills.

A short time before the attack, Arminius and his allies made an excuse to slip away from the main Roman army, joining the other Germans waiting to attack the marching column.

For the Romans, disaster was now just moments away.

The battle

The attack began with an assault on part of the Roman marching column, either in one location or multiple locations. It is likely that not every Roman soldier was aware of the attack at first, as the column should have extended for several miles, if not longer – later allowing the Germans to isolate and target individual sections at once. 

The Teutoburg Forest in modern times. Nikater via Wikimedia Commons

The German tactic of choice was to dart out of the forests which bordered the marching route, launch projectiles at the Roman soldiers, and disappear back into the trees before the Romans could launch any counter-attacks. The Roman soldiers struggled to defend themselves, finding the terrain too restrictive for them to adopt battle formation, leaving them struggling to put up any effective resistance. 

Early twentieth century painting of the Varus battle. Lippisches Landesmuseum via Wikimedia Commons

Heavy casualties were sustained by the Romans during the early stages of the battle but they maintained combat cohesion. They hastily constructed an overnight camp that provided some brief respite from the attack – but they were still stranded nearly 100 miles from the safety of the Rhine and were in territory they knew little about. Varus evidently decided that their only hope was to try and outpace the ambush, to reach either friendly territory, or a large open area in which the Romans could adopt battle array and take on their attackers head-on. 

The battlefield in modern times. Author’s image

Not much is known about the two days which followed, as the Romans attempted unsuccessfully to outrun their attackers. The battle on these days likely followed the pattern established on the first day, with hit-and-run German assaults from the forest against which the Romans would defend themselves the best they could. The Romans faced ever-mounting casualties and gradually worsening weather, with winds that threatened to knock them from their feet, and rain which saturated their wooden weapons to the point of uselessness. Despite this, the Romans continued to maintain cohesion, seemingly still believing that they would eventually escape the attack.

An iron base from a Roman cavalry mask, found at the battlefield. Author’s image

On the fourth day of the battle, however, the situation collapsed. Archaeological investigations of the battlefield suggest that the Germans constructed a turf rampart alongside a narrow sandbar pass between a mountain and a marsh, through which they knew the Romans would have to pass if they wanted to reach the Rhine. This rampart, combined with the marsh and high ground, created a ‘killing ground’ in which the surviving Roman army became trapped, allowing them to be picked off by the Germans with little hope of escape.

The tombstone of Marcus Caelius, a centurion in the 18th Legion who died in the Battle of the Teutoburg. Author’s image

It was at this point that Roman cohesion disintegrated. Varus and his senior officers committed suicide to avoid falling into enemy hands, an action imitated by many of the Roman soldiers, either by killing themselves, or throwing down their weapons and allowing themselves to be killed. Not all the Romans died in the battle; some were captured and either executed or enslaved, and a few even escaped and reached Roman installations towards the Rhine. However, the battle overall had been a disaster for Rome, and would be the first step towards the permanent abandonment of Imperial ambitions for the German territories east of the Rhine.

Arminius the false friend

The attack masterminded by Arminius on the Roman legions in the Teutoburg had been extraordinarily successful. Even though the Romans managed to resist collapse for several days, there was no realistic prospect of them actually escaping the conflict once it had begun. 

It is likely that Arminius exploited his knowledge of the field operations of the Roman army, acquired during his time as an auxiliary commander, to increase the effectiveness of his strategy. His personal friendship with Varus, developed during his time as a member of the commander’s provincial staff, would have further increased his ability to predict the actions that the Romans would take once the attack began.

Arminius knew that the Roman marching column would rely on his local knowledge for the best route to take toward the supposedly rebellious territories, allowing him to lead them wherever he wanted them to go. He knew that the soldiers would struggle to fight in restricted terrain, so he led them into forested and marshy areas. 

Perhaps most importantly, he knew that Varus would most likely try to break out of the ambush by advancing, not retreating, allowing him to construct the turf rampart along the path they would have to take, knowing that it could be used to create an almost inescapable kill zone.

Arminius was able to construct his plot in relative safety due to his status as one of Varus’ trusted advisors, and as a key ally among the German chieftains. His loyalty was believed to be so secure as a result of his upbringing that Varus even ignored a direct warning about the imminent attack.

A hidden danger in the ranks

Despite this, it appears to have been Varus rather than Arminius who was blamed by Rome for the defeat. As recorded by several Roman historians, fault was found in his long-, medium-, and short-term policies in the region. It was alleged that he had imposed cultural change too quickly in Germany, that he had encouraged lax standards in his army on the march, and that once the attack began, his response was wrong and made the situation worse. 

These allegations were exaggerated, if not entirely untrue. The pace of Roman cultural change was determined by the emperor, not Varus, and while he may have let his soldiers become undisciplined on the march, from the moment the ambush hit he in fact followed all established protocols for such a situation – which was why Arminius had been able to predict his response so accurately. The engagement became known as the clades Variana, or ‘Varus Disaster,’ in reflection of his supposed culpability. Arminius’ role in the battle was minimized, and his status as a former hostage and auxiliary who had turned against Rome, while mentioned, was not emphasized.

The Hermannsdenkmal, a monument to Arminius (Hermann) constructed in Detmold (Germany) in nineteenth century. Daniel Schwen via Wikimedia Commons

The reality was more complex. In part, Varus was blamed so heavily to shield the Imperial regime from criticism, as it was ultimately Emperor Augustus who had determined the shape of policy in Germany which resulted in such disastrous consequences. But it also served to deflect attention away from the fact that the battle had been orchestrated by an individual thought to be a friend and ally of Rome, but who had turned out to be anything but.

The events in the Teutoburg had demonstrated that the auxiliary system, only introduced, at the time, in recent decades, theoretically allowed for an enemy to be recruited into the army, trained to fight, and be given insight into the operation of the Roman army in the field – including all its protocols and weaknesses – only to later turn this expertise against the Romans. 

It was not just Arminius who turned against Rome, as many of the ordinary German auxiliaries in the Roman army appear to have joined him, creating an even bigger threat going forward. But the Roman military system could no longer survive without auxiliary soldiers, as the manpower demanded vastly outweighed the number of citizens who were willing to serve. It would not do for the Roman population to realize the risk posed by auxiliaries, and so when the story of the Teutoburg was being told, the betrayal of Arminius and his men would be minimized to preserve civilian trust in the system. 

Roman forces would fail again in the coming decades, with former auxiliaries Tacfarinas leading an insurrection against Rome in North Africa, and Julius Civilis, who led the Batavian Revolt in 69 AD. The auxiliary system won the loyalty of most of its soldiers – indeed, Arminius’ own brother Flavus never wavered in his commitment to Rome – but there was always the risk, as in the Teutoburg, of raising a rebel within your own walls. The important thing, however, was that the civilian public at large never realized the scale of the danger.

Rome could overcome a defeat on the battlefield, as long as the population never lost faith in the auxiliary system that Rome could no longer do without.

Dr. Jo Ball is a University Teacher and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Liverpool. Her research interests include the archaeology of Greek and Roman battle, insurgency in the Roman world, and Roman combat psychology. She has just completed her first book, The Life of Publius Quinctillius Varus: The Man who Lost Three Legions in the Teutoburg Forest (2023, Pen & Sword Military), and can often be found lurking on Twitter (@DrJEBall ). 

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