Publius Quinctilius Varus led three Roman legions to defeat on or around Sept. 9, 9 A.D. The loss at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest ensured that Rome would never completely dominate Germany the way it did Gaul (France) and later Britannia (England).
Varus had been charged by the Emperor Caesar Augustus in Rome to pacify the lands east of the Rhine River in the hopes of incorporating “Germania” into the empire. Varus, a patrician by birth and distantly related to the emperor, seemed like the perfect choice to command the expedition. The force he led consisted of three Roman legions, about 5,000 men each, and several more auxiliary units made up of allied non-Romans.
Most of the German tribes beyond the Rhine, however, did not want to be incorporated into the sprawling Roman empire and plotted to resist the encroachment. Third century Roman historian Cassius Dio writes of the Germans' resistance to Varus:
“He (Varus) not only gave orders to the Germans as if they were actual slaves to the Romans, but also levied money from them as if they were subject nations. These were demands they would not tolerate. The (German) leaders yearned for their former ascendancy, and the masses preferred their accustomed condition to foreign domination.”
The man who was to play the decisive role in breaking Roman power was a German soldier named Arminius (whose name roughly translates to the modern name “Hermann,” and is sometimes referred to as “Hermann the German”). Arminius had served for years as a Roman auxiliary, had won citizenship and had been granted the status of “eques,” or minor noble. He was also close to Varus, possibly serving on his staff.
In his book “Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor,” historian Anthony Everitt writes: “Arminius' idea was not to rise in open rebellion, for he knew that a German horde would be unlikely to defeat the Romans in open battle. Instead, he intended to lure Varus away from the Rhine by sending him false reports of an uprising. Arminius would then lay an ambush for the Romans in what was supposed to be friendly country.”
Though Varus had been tipped off to Arminius' treachery, he refused to believe it and took his army deeper into Germany. The Germans had built camouflaged ramparts, hidden beneath mounds of earth. Upon sight of the hated enemy, the Germans threw spears and then attacked with melee weapons. With the Roman forces spread out in a long line, the Germans fell on them from both sides, tearing the Roman legions and their allies apart in a great, bloody ambush. The Romans had been utterly surprised.
Many Romans survived and ran a gauntlet of German foes on their way back toward the Rhine, though Varus chose to commit suicide. When news reached Rome, panic set in, though when it became obvious the Germans weren't about to overrun Gaul or northern Italy, fear gave way to anger. The Roman historian Suetonius writes of Augustus' brooding even years after the massacre:
“Indeed, it is said that he took the disaster so deeply to heart that he left his hair and beard untrimmed for months; he would often beat his head on a door, shouting: 'Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!' and always kept the anniversary as a day of deep mourning.”
Varus' expedition was the last time the Romans launched a major campaign into Germany. Though over the next few years smaller expeditions would move across the Rhine to punish enemies or shore up the empire's defensive lines, the idea of a Roman Germania was lost forever. Arminius died in 21 A.D., most likely assassinated by rivals within his tribe.
Just after Augustus' death in 14 A.D., the new emperor Tiberius ordered his nephew Germanicus to raid across the Rhine and punish the rebellious tribes. The Roman historian Tacitus describes the horrific remnants of that lost battlefield:
“On the open ground were whitening bones, scattered where men had fled, heaped up where they had stood and fought back. Fragments of spears and of horses' limbs lay there. ... In groves nearby were the outlandish altars at which the Germans had massacred the Roman colonels and senior company commanders. ... So, six years after the slaughter, a living Roman army had come to bury the dead men's bones of three whole divisions. No one knew if the remains he was burying belonged to a stranger or a comrade. But in their bitter distress, and rising fury against the enemy, they looked on them all as friends and blood-brothers.”
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org