Publius Quinctilius Varus, a noble from a Patrician family who was related to the Imperial family, was a general and an experienced administrative official. He was assigned to consolidate the new province of Germania in the autumn of 6 AD.
Then nearly half of all Roman legions in existence were sent to the Balkans to end a revolt. Due to this massive redeployment of available legions, when Varus was named Legatus Augusti pro praetore in Germania, only three legions were available to him.
Varus’s forces included his three legions (Legio XVII, Legio XVIII, and Legio XIX), six cohorts of auxiliary troops and three alae. Most lacked combat experience, especially against Germanic fighters in the unique local conditions of Germania.
The Roman forces were not marching in combat formation, and a large numbers of camp followers were traveling with the soldiers. As they entered the forest northeast of Osnabrück, the road became narrow and muddy. To add to the problems, a violent storm had also arisen. Among other errors it appears that Varus also neglected to send reconnaissance parties ahead of the main body of troops.
The line was now stretched out between 15 and 20 kilometers, which made it ripe for an attack. Germanic warriors armed with light swords, large lances and narrow-bladed short spears took advantage at this moment. The tribesmen surrounded the entire Roman army, and showered all sorts of weapons down upon the vulnerable Romans.
After taking heavy losses, the Romans had managed to set up a fortified night camp. The next morning these Roman survivors broke out into the open country north of the Wiehen Hills, again taking heavy losses. As torrential rains pounded, a further Roman attempt to escape was attempted by marching through another forested area. The rain prevented the legions from using their bows because the wet sinew strings had become slack, and their waterlogged shields rendered them virtually defenseless.
The Romans undertook a night march to escape, but marched into another trap that Arminius had set. A sandy, open strip was left for the Romans to march on, constricted by a hill, with a gap of only about 100 meters, the woods and the swampland. The road was further blocked by a trench, and an earthen wall had been built along the roadside by the forest edge. This all permitted the Germanic tribesmen to attack the Romans from cover. The Romans made a desperate attempt to storm the wall, but failed.
The highest-ranking officer next to Varus, Legatus Numonius Vala, abandoned the troops by riding off with the cavalry. His retreat was in vain though as Vala was overtaken by the Germanic cavalry and killed shortly thereafter. The Germanic warriors stormed the field and slaughtered the crumbling Roman forces. Varus committed suicide, and Praefectus Ceionius dishonorably surrendered, later taking his own life. Praefectus Eggius was the only one to die heroically as he attempted to save his doomed troops.
Roman casualties have been estimated at 15,000 to 20,000 dead, and many of the officers were said to have taken their own lives by falling on their swords in the approved manner. Tacitus wrote that many officers were sacrificed by the Germanic forces as part of their indigenous religious ceremonies, cooked in pots and their bones used for rituals. Others were ransomed, and some common soldiers appear to have been enslaved.
All Roman accounts stress the completeness of the Roman defeat. Around 6,000 pieces of Roman equipment were found at Kalkriese, with only part of a single Germanic spur, clearly indicate minimal Germanic losses. The victors, more than likely, removed the bodies of their fallen and buried their warriors in battle gear per their religious practice.
The victory was followed by a clean sweep of all Roman forts, garrisons and cities east of the Rhine. The pair of Roman legions left in Germania, commanded by Varus’s nephew Lucius Nonius Asprenas, remained content to try to hold that river. One fort, Aliso, fended off the Germanic tribes for a few months. After the situation became untenable, the garrison under Lucius Caedicius, accompanied by survivors of Teutoburg Forest, broke through the siege and reached the Rhine.
Upon hearing of the defeat, the Emperor Augustus, according to the Roman historian Suetonius, in De vita Caesarum (On the Life of the Caesars), was so shaken that he stood butting his head against the walls of his palace, repeatedly shouting:
“Quintili Vare, legiones redde!“ (Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!)
The legion numbers XVII and XIX were not used again by the Romans, unlike other legions that were reconstructed. Augustus’ stepson Tiberius took effective control, and prepared for the continuation of the war. Legio II Augusta, XX Valeria Victrix, and Legio XIII Gemina were sent to the Rhine to replace the lost legions.
Arminius sent Varus’s severed head to King Maroboduus of the Marcomanni, the other most powerful Germanic ruler, with the offer of an anti-Roman alliance. Maroboduus declined, sending the head to Rome for burial, remaining neutral throughout the ensuing war.
Though the shock at the slaughter was enormous, the Romans immediately began a slow, systematic process of preparing for the reconquest of the country. In 14 AD, just after Augustus’s death and the accession of his stepson Tiberius as heir, a massive raid was conducted by the new emperor’s nephew Germanicus.
In a surprise attack, Germanicus went after the Marsi. Other Germanic tribes were incited by the Roman attack and ambushed Germanicus on the way to the winter quarters. This was a bad decision for these other tribes because all were defeated by Germanicus and all had heavy losses.
With a large army of between 55,000 to 70,000 men, backed by naval forces, two major campaigns and several smaller battles came about in 15 AD. In the spring, Legatus Caecina Severus invaded the Marsi a second time with around 30,000 men, causing mayhem and destruction.
Meanwhile on Mount Taunus, Germanicus’s 30,000 some troops had built a fort from where they marched against the Chatti. Many of the Chatti fled across a river and hid themselves in the forests. Germanicus next marched on Mattium and burned the place down.
After initial successful skirmishes in summer 15 AD, including the capture of Arminius’s wife Thusnelda, the army visited the site of the disastrous Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. According to Tacitus, they found heaps of bleached bones and severed skulls nailed to trees, which they buried, “…looking on all as kinsfolk and of their own blood…” A Roman Legionary Standard from the lost battle was also recovered.
Skirmishes with the Germani were constant but the Romans could not draw them into open battle. Germanicus launched a massive assault on the heartland of the Cherusci. Arminius initially lured Germanicus’s cavalry into a trap and inflicted minor casualties.
Successful fighting by the Roman infantry caused though the Germans to break ranks and flee into the forest. This victory, combined with the fact that winter was fast approaching, meant Germanicus’s next step was to lead his army back to its winter quarters on the Rhine.
In spite of doubts on the part of his uncle, Emperor Tiberius, Germanicus managed to raise another huge army and invaded Germania again in 16 AD. He forced a crossing of the Weser River and then met Arminius’s army at Idistaviso, further up the Weser.
This engagement is called the Battle of the Weser River; it has also been referred to as the first Battle of Minden or the Battle of Idistavisus. The battle marked the end of a three-year series of campaigns by Germanicus in Germania.
The Germanic tribes generally avoided open large-scale combat but by repeated Roman incursions deep into Germanic territory, Germanicus was able to force Arminius the Germanic coalition, into response for one final battle fought at the Angivarian Wall.
Germanicus’s leadership, command qualities, and superior tactics were put on display as his better trained legions, along with their Chauci auxiliaries, inflicted huge casualties on the Germani army with only minor losses.
The many Germanic fatalities once more forced the tribes to flee. Arminius and his uncle, Inviomerus, evaded capture and fled with the remnants of their army into the forests. Germanicus then withdrew behind the Rhine for the winter.
Although only a small number of soldiers died it was still a bad ending for a brilliantly fought campaign. After a few more raids across the Rhine, which resulted in the recovery of two of the three legion’s aquila lost in 9 AD, a feeling came that Roman honor had been avenged.
Tiberius called an end to the costly military campaigns in northern Germania. Germanicus was ordered to return to Rome, where he was granted a Triumphus by Tiberius on 26 May 17 AD. Arminius would be later assassinated on the orders of rival Germanic chiefs.
The Romans took any assault on themself, or on their Empire, quite personally. So it was no shock that after a massive defeat at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest there would be a price for their enemies to pay. That price was paid to Germanicus.
We hope you enjoyed this bit of history and may have even learned something new today. From all of us here at Rome Across Europe, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!