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Battle of the Teutoburg Forest

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest took place in the year 9 A.D. (probably lasting from September 9 to September 11) when an alliance of Germanic tribes led by Arminius, the son of Segimer of the Cherusci, ambushed and destroyed three Roman legions led by Publius Quinctilius Varus.

The battle began a seven-year war which established the Rhine as the boundary of the Roman Empire for the next four hundred years, until the decline of the Roman influence in the West. The Roman Empire made no further concerted attempts to conquer Germania beyond the Rhine.

The battle (which is called Schlacht im Teutoburger Wald, Varusschlacht or Hermannsschlacht in German) had a profound effect on 19th century German nationalism along with the recovery of the histories of Tacitus in the 15th century, in which the Germans identified with the Germanic tribes as a way to give the (at the time politically disunited) "German people" a common origin.

In 1808, the German author Heinrich von Kleist's play Die Hermannsschlacht aroused anti-Napoleonic sentiment, even though it could not be performed under occupation. Later, the figure of Arminius was used to represent the ideals of freedom and unification — as supported by German liberals, and opposed by the reactionary rulers of the German states. A memorial — the Hermannsdenkmal — was begun during this period, and Arminius became a symbol of Pan Germanism. The monument lay unfinished for decades until after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, which unified the country. The completed monument was then a symbol of conservative German nationalism. The battle and the Hermannsdenkmal monument is also commemorated by the similar Hermann Heights Monument in New Ulm, MN, U.S.A.


The Roman force was led by Publius Quinctilius Varus, a noble from an old family, an administrative official who was assigned to establish the new province of Germany in 7 AD.

Varus' opponent, Arminius, had lived in Rome as a hostage in his youth, where he had received a military education and had even been given the rank of Equestrian. After his return, he was a trusted advisor to Varus. In secret, he forged an alliance of Germanic tribes that had traditionally been enemies (the Cherusci, Marsi, Chatti, Bructeri, Chauci and Sicambri), but which he was able to unite due to outrage over Varus' measures. Historians believe that these were no different from the measures used to establish any nascent province — which often resulted in revolts .

While Varus was on his way from his summer camp somewhere west of the Weser river (despite recent finds indicating a Roman presence near the modern city of Minden, its location remains disputed; other sites near Minden or Rinteln have been suggested by the historian Delbrück and the military writer Pastenaci, respectively) to the winter headquarters near the Rhine, he heard reports of a local rebellion, fabricated by Arminius. Varus decided to quell this uprising immediately and take a detour through territory unfamiliar to the Romans. Arminius, who accompanied Varus, probably directed him along a route that would facilitate an ambush. Another Cheruscan nobleman, Segestes, father of Arminius' wife, and opposed to the marriage, warned Varus the night before the departure of the Roman forces, allegedly even suggesting that Varus apprehend him along with several Germanic leaders whom he identified as covert participants in the planned uprising. But his warning was dismissed as the result of a personal feud. Arminius then left under the pretext of drumming up Germanic forces to support the Roman campaign, but instead led his troops, who must have been waiting in the vicinity, in attacks on surrounding Roman garrisons. Recent archaeological finds place the battle in Osnabrück County, Lower Saxony. On the basis of Roman accounts, the Romans must at this time have been marching northwestward from the area that is now the city of Detmold, passing east of Osnabrück; they must then have camped in this area prior to being attacked.

The Battle

Varus's forces included three legions (Legio XVII, Legio XVIII, and Legio XIX), six cohorts of auxiliary troops (non-Roman allies) and three squadrons of cavalry (alae), most of which lacked combat experience with Germanic fighters under local conditions. The Roman forces were not marching in combat formation, and were interspersed with large numbers of camp-followers. As they entered the forest (probably just northeast of Osnabrück ), they found the track narrow and muddy; according to Dio Cassius a violent storm had also arisen. He also writes that Varus neglected to send out advance reconnaissance parties.

The line of march was now stretched out perilously long — estimates are that it surpassed 15 km (9 miles), and was perhaps as long as 20 km (12 miles). It was then suddenly attacked by Germanic warriors. Arminius knew Roman tactics very well and could direct his troops to counter them effectively, using locally superior numbers against the spread-out Roman legions. The Romans managed to set up a fortified night camp, and the next morning broke out into the open country north of the Wiehen mountains, near the modern town of Osterkappeln. The break-out cost them heavy losses, as did a further attempt to escape by marching through another forested area, with the torrential rains continuing, preventing them from using their bows, and rendering them virtually defenseless, as their shields too became waterlogged.

They then undertook a night march to escape, but marched straight into another trap that Arminius had set, at the foot of Kalkriese Hill (near Osnabrück). There, the sandy, open strip on which the Romans could march easily was constricted by the hill, so that there was a gap of only about 100 m between the woods and the swampland at the edge of the Great Bog. Moreover, the road was blocked by a trench, and, towards the forest, an earthen wall had been built along the roadside, permitting the Germanic tribesmen to attack the Romans from cover. The Romans made a desperate attempt to storm the wall, but failed, and the highest-ranking officer next to Varus, Numonius Vala, abandoned the troops by riding off with the cavalry; however, he too was overtaken by the Germanic cavalry and killed, according to Velleius Paterculus. The Germanic warriors then stormed the field and slaughtered the disintegrating Roman forces; Varus committed suicide. Velleius reports that one commander, Ceionus, "shamefully" surrendered, while his colleague Eggius "heroically" died leading his doomed troops.

Around 15,000–20,000 Roman soldiers must have died; not only Varus, but also many of his officers are 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. However, others were ransomed, and the common soldiers appear to have been enslaved.

All Roman accounts stress the completeness of the Roman defeat, the extremely heavy Roman casualties, and the minimal Germanic losses. That account is confirmed by the finds at Kalkriese, where, along with 6000 pieces (largely scraps) of Roman equipment, there is only one single item — part of a spur — that is clearly Germanic. Even allowing for the fact that several thousand Germanic soldiers were deserting militiamen who wore italians armor (which would thus show up as "Roman" in the archaeological digs), and for the fact that the Germanic tribes wore less metal and more perishable organic material, this indicates surprisingly slight Germanic losses. The Germanic practice of burying dead Germanic warriors' battle gear with them may have contributed to the lack of Germanic relics, given the victors' ability to gather such at their leisure.

The victory over the legions was followed by a clean sweep of all Roman forts, garrisons and cities — of which there were at least two — east of the Rhine; the remaining two Roman legions, commanded by Varus' nephew Lucius Nonius Asprenas, were content to try to hold that river. One fort (or possibly city), Aliso, fended off the Germanic tribes for many weeks, perhaps a few months, before the garrison, which included survivors of the Teutoburg Forest, successfully broke out under their commander, Lucius Caeditius and reached the Rhine.


Upon hearing of the defeat, the emperor Augustus, according to the Roman historian Suetonius in his Lives of the Twelve Caesars, showed signs of near-insanity, banging his head against the walls of his palace and repeatedly shouting Quintili Vare, legiones redde! ('Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!').

The three legion numbers were never used again by the Romans after this defeat, unlike other legions that were restructured — a case unique in Roman history.

The battle abruptly ended the period of triumphant and exuberant Roman expansion that had followed the end of the Civil Wars 40 years earlier. Augustus' stepson Tiberius took effective control, and prepared for the continuation of the war.

The Germanic tribes, on the other hand, profited greatly from the plunder of their victory, and gradually began to move to a higher stage of development, although they were still a long way from political unification. This was apparently the goal of Arminius, however, who immediately sent Varus' severed head to Marbod, king of the Marcomanni, the other most powerful Germanic ruler, with the offer of an anti-Roman alliance. Marbod declined the offer, sent the head on to Rome for burial, and remained neutral throughout the ensuing war. Only thereafter did a brief, inconclusive war break out between the two Germanic leaders.

During the next centuries, the Germanic tribes were able to profit from trade with Rome, without suffering the Roman yoke, and to absorb those elements of Roman culture which they wanted.

Roman Retaliation

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' death and the accession of his heir and stepson Tiberius, a massive raid was conducted by the new emperor's nephew Germanicus, followed the next year by two major campaigns with a large army estimated at 70,000 men, backed by naval forces. He was able to devastate large areas and eliminate any form of active resistance, but the majority of the Germanic tribespeople fled at the sight of the Roman army into remote forests. The raids were considered a success since the major goal of destroying any rebel alliance networks was completed. After initial successes, including the capture of Arminius' wife Thusnelda, the army visited the site of the first battle. 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". Burial pits with remains fitting this description have been found at Kalkriese Hill.

In spite of doubts on the part of his uncle, Emperor Tiberius, Germanicus managed to raise another huge army and invaded Germania again the next year, in 16 AD. He forced a crossing of the Weser near modern Minden, suffering heavy losses, and then met Arminius' army at Idistoviso, further up the Weser, near modern Rinteln, in an engagement often called the Battle of the Weser River. Germanicus's leadership and command qualities were shown in full at the battle as his superior tactics and better trained and equipped legions inflicted huge casualties on the Germanic armies with only minor losses. One final battle was fought at the Angivarian Wall west of modern Hanover, repeating the pattern of high Germanic fatalities forcing them to flee. With his main objectives reached and with winter approaching Germanicus ordered his army back to their winter camps, with the fleet occasioning some damage by a storm in the North Sea. 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 legions' eagles lost in 9 A.D., Germanicus was recalled to Rome and informed by Tiberius that he would be given a triumph and reassigned to a different command.

The third standard was recovered in 41 AD by Publius Gabinius from the Chauci during the reign of Claudius, brother to Germanicus, according to Cassius Dio in Roman History Book LX {Book 60} Chapter 8 Possibly the recovered aquilae were placed within the Temple of the Avenging Mars, (Tempio di Mars Ultor), the ruins of which stand today in the Forum of Augustus by the Via dei Fori Imperiali in Rome.

The last chapter of this story is recounted by the historian Tacitus, in Annales (xii.27). Around 50 AD, bands of Chatti invaded Roman territory in Germania Superior, possibly an area in Hesse east of the Rhine which the Romans appear to have still held, and began to plunder. The Roman commander, Lucius Pomponius, raised a force from the Vangiones and Nemetes supported by Roman cavalry. They attacked the Chatti from both sides and defeated them, and joyfully found and liberated some of the men from Varus' legions, who had been held in slavery for 40 years.

Despite the successes enjoyed by his troops, Germanicus' campaign in Germania was in reaction to the mutinous intentions of his troops, and lacked any strategic value. In addition he engaged the very Germanic leader (Arminius) who had destroyed three Roman legions in AD 9, and exposed his troops to the remains of those dead Romans. Furthermore, in leading his troops across the Rhine, without recourse to Tiberius, he flouted the instructions of Augustus to keep that river as the boundary of the empire, and opened himself to doubts about his motives in such independent action. These errors in strategic and political judgement gave Tiberius reason enough to recall his nephew.

The Detmold Memorial

The legacy of the Germanic victory was resurrected with the recovery of the histories of Tacitus in the 15th century, when the figure of Arminius, rechristened "Hermann" by Martin Luther, became a nationalistic symbol of Pan Germanism. In 1808 the German Heinrich von Kleist's play Die Hermannsschlacht aroused anti-Napoleonic sentiment, even though it could not be performed under occupation.

As a symbol of unified Romantic nationalism, the Hermannsdenkmal (Hermann's monument), a statue in Detmold paid for largely out of private funds, was completed in 1875 to commemorate the battle; similar statues also exist outside of Germany in German-founded communities including New Ulm, Minnesota.

In 1847, Josef Viktor von Scheffel wrote a lengthy song, "Als die Römer frech geworden" ("When the Romans started to misbehave"), relating the tale of the battle with somewhat gloating humour. Copies of the text are still found on many souvenirs available at the Detmold monument.

Site of the Battle

For almost 2000 years, the site of the battle was unidentified. The main clue to its location was an allusion to the saltus Teutoburgiensis in section i.60-62 of Tacitus's Annals, an area "not far" from the land between the upper reaches of the Lippe and Ems Rivers in central Westphalia.

During the 19th century, theories as to the true site of the battle abounded, and the followers of one theory successfully argued for the area of a long wooded ridge called the Osning, around Bielefeld. This was then renamed the Teutoburg Forest, and became the site of the Detmold Memorial.

Late 20th-century research and excavations at Kalkriese Hill (52°26'29"N, 8°8'26"E.) were sparked by finds by British amateur archaeologist Major Tony Clunn's discovery of coins from the reign of Augustus (and none minted later), and some ovoid leaden Roman sling shot. Clunn was casually prospecting with a metal detector in hopes of finding "the odd Roman coin." The excavations soon turned up more scraps of weapons and equipment, the helmet mask of a Roman officer, the bone pits, and the remains of the Germanic fortifications. As a result, Kalkriese is now perceived to be the actual site of part of the battle, probably its conclusive phase. Kalkriese is a village administratively part of the city of Bramsche, on the north slope fringes of the Wiehengebirge, a ridge-like range of hills in Lower Saxony, north of Osnabrück. The site some 70 km from Detmold was first suggested by 19th-century historian Theodor Mommsen, one of the "founding fathers" of modern research into ancient history.

While the initial excavations were done by the archaeological team of the Kulturhistorisches Museum Osnabrück under the direction of Prof. Wolfgang Schlüter from 1987 onward, after the dimensions of the project became apparent, a new foundation was created to organize future excavations, to build and run a new museum on the site, and to centralise publicity work and documentation. Since 1990 the excavations have been directed by Susanne Wilbers-Rost.

The Varusschlacht Museum ("Varus' Battle Museum") and Park Kalkriese include a large outdoor area with trails leading to a re-creation of part of the earthen wall from the battle, and other outdoor exhibits. An observation tower allows visitors to get an overview of the battle site. Most of the indoor exhibits are housed in the tower. A second building includes the ticket center, museum store and a restaurant. The museum houses a large number of artifacts found at the site, which include fragments of studded sandals legionaries lost in flight, spearheads, and a Roman officer's ceremonial face-mask, which was originally silver-plated. Coins minted with the countermark VAR, distributed by Varus, support the identification of the site. Excavations have revealed battle debris along a corridor almost 15 miles from east to west and little more than a mile wide. A long zig-zagging wall constructed of peat turves and packed sand apparently had been constructed beforehand: concentrations of battle debris before it, and a dearth of finds behind it, testify to the Romans' inability to breach the defense. Human remains found here appear to corroborate Tacitus' account of their later burial. (Smithsonian, p 81)

Alternate Theories on the Battle

Although the majority of evidence has the 3-day battle take place in the area east and north of Osnabrück and end at Kalkriese Hill, some scholars and others adhere to older theories. Moreover, there is controversy among "Kalkriese-adherents" as to the details.

The German historians Peter Kehne and Reinhard Wolters believe that the battle was probably in the Detmold area after all, and that Kalkriese is the site of one of the battles in 15 AD. This theory is, however, in serious contradiction to Tacitus' account.

A very large body of opinion, including the scholars at the Kalkriese Museum (Susanne Wilbers-Rost, Günther Moosbauer; also Historian Ralf Jahn and British author Adrian Murdoch, see below), believe that the Roman army did not approach Kalkriese from the south of the Wiehen Mountains (i.e., from Detmold), but rather from roughly due east, from Minden, Westphalia. This would have involved a march along the northern edge of the Wiehen mountains, and would have passed through flat, open country, devoid of the dense forests and ravines described by Cassius Dio. Their explanation of this contradiction is that Romans had a stereotyped view of Germania: Just as most Europeans and Americans, hearing the word "Arabia", think "sandy desert", so, they argue, to most Romans, the word "Germania" meant "swampy, rainy forest"; thus, Cassius Dio was, they believe, not really describing the situation, but only reflecting this stereotype. Historians such as Gustav-Adolf Lehmann and Boris Dreyer counter that the description is too detailed and differentiated to be thus dismissed.

Tony Clunn (see below), the discoverer of the battlefield, and a “southern-approach” proponent, believes that the battered Roman Army regrouped north of Ostercappeln, where Varus committed suicide, and that the remnants were finally overcome at the Kalkriese Gap.

Peter Oppitz, in "Das Geheimnis der Varuschlacht", Zagara-Verlag Edition in Kelkheim, Germany, 2006, proposes a new site in Paderborn. Upon the new reading of Tacitus, Paterculus and Florus' writings, together with the discrimination of Dio Cassius writings, the author explains that an ambush took place in the summer camp of Varus, during a peaceful meeting between the Roman commanders and the Germans.

Ancient Sources

The following is a list of all known references to the battle from the literary sources of classical antiquity. Though the account provided in the Roman History is the most detailed of these, Dio Cassius' almost two century removal from the time of the event, as well as his use of detail mentioned by no earlier author, render it much more likely to be a literary re-imagining of the battle than a reliable historical record.

Portrayal in fiction

The battle and its aftermath are featured in both the novel and television series, I, Claudius.

A movie, named: "Die Hermannsschlacht" / "The Hermann Battle" (Hermann is the popular German name of Arminius) was released between 1993 and 1995. The first public screening of this work took place in Düsseldorf in May 1995. In 1996 the opus was honoured by an international jury in Kiel, where it was presented during an archaeological film festival. "The Hermann Battle" was successfully shown in arthouse-cinemas in the whole of Germany. The actors speak German and Latin, with German subtitles. Famous British artist Tony Cragg has a brief role as a Roman citizen in the palace of Augustus.

The Battle of Teutoburg Forest is also a historical battle that can be played in the video game Rome: Total War. However, it is not an entirely accurate depiction of the historical battle. The scenario is difficult because the Roman troops are heavily outnumbered, not due to superior Germanic strategy.

A 1955 novel, "The Lost Eagles", written by Ralph Graves, gave a fictitious account of a Varus relation, Severus Varus, working to recover the lost eagles of Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, as well as the family's honor. The story follows the historical recovery of the Eagles in the campaigns of Germanicus.


  • Fergus M. Bordewich, "The ambush that changed history" in Smithsonian Magazine, September 2005, pp. 74–81.
  • Tony Clunn, The Quest for the Lost Roman Legions, Spellmount, Oxford, 2005, 371 pp. ISBN-13: 978-0-9544190-0-4 Combination of the account of the discovery and his theory about the course of the battle, recounted in fictional style.
  • Adrian Goldsworthy, In The Name of Rome: The Men Who Won The Roman Empire. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2004.
  • Adrian Murdoch, Rome's Greatest Defeat: Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest, Sutton Publishing, Stroud, 2006, ISBN 0-7509-4015-8 (review)Account of the battle, "eastern approach" to Kalkriese
  • Paweł Rochala. Las Teutoburski 9 rok n.e. Bellona, Warszawa, 2005.
  • Peter S. Wells, The Battle That Stopped Rome. Emperor Augustus, Arminius, and the slaughter of the legions in the Teutoburg Forest, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY 2003, ISBN 0-393-02028-2 Strong on archaeology,; controversial "Florus"-based theory
  • Peter Oppitz, "Das Geheimnis der Varusschlacht", Zadara-Verlag, 2006, ISBN 3-00-019973-X : Paderborn would have been the site of the battle.

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