Episode 21 The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest:
If history teaches us anything it is that conquering a foreign land is easy, but holding it is incredibly difficult. This is compounded when the conquered culture is entirely different from the conquerors. In our last episode the Roman general and heir to the empire Drusus conquered western Germania in 9 BCE, raising hopes of Roman rule over Magna Germania. Furthermore, if Germania was conquered, Gallic rebels would lose the ability to call upon the Germans for aid, which they occasionally did during the Gallic Wars. Augustus believed that if Germania was pacified then Gaul would be safe from any future invasion. But the urban, Mediterranean Romans greatly underestimated the tenacity and cunning of the woods-dwelling, Germans
While Augustus wanted to push further into Germania the death of his beloved adopted son Drusus sent him into a period of deep mourning. This was compounded by the fact that Tiberius, the second in line to the throne, was constantly fighting with his adoptive father. See, Tiberius had done something which the Romans found wholly strange and unnatural: he was in love with a woman. While it was expected of Roman men to marry women and bear children, passionate love that inspired songs and poems was viewed as the sort of effeminate, unmanly thing that half-men and Greeks did. Roman men were taught that sex with young men was for pleasure while sex with women was purely for procreation. In fact, sexually pleasing women was considered unmanly. A good Roman loved Rome and battle, not women. In fact, Pompey’s rivals often slandered him by saying he loved his wife.
In 19 BCE Augustus forced Tiberius to marry Vipsania Agrippina, the daughter of Agrippa, Augustus’ former general and second-in-command of the empire. Tiberius fell in love with Agrippina and the two had a child together. Agrippa’s death in 12 BCE meant that Tiberius’ marriage was no longer politically relevant. Augustus decided that the best way to secure Tiberius’ future was if he divorced Agrippina and married his own daughter, Julia. Tiberius was outraged at the thought of abandoning his beloved, the mother of his son to marry a woman who he considered to have loose morals. It didn’t help that Julia despised Tiberius as beneath her. But Augustus commanded Tiberius to do his duty and put Rome before his heart. With utmost reluctance Tiberius divorced Agrippina and married Julia. At the time of their divorce, Agrippina was pregnant with a second child, though this did not survive, and it is possible that Tiberius blamed himself, or more likely Augustus, for this misfortune.
Tiberius fell into a deep depression and publicly longed for his ex-wife. In 9 BCE he spotted Agrippina on the street, followed her to her new house and begged her to take him back. Augustus was infuriated and he ordered Tiberius never to see Agrippina again. Pliny the Elder claimed Tiberius was the gloomiest man who ever walked the Earth during this period. Augustus and Tiberius’ conflict became so heated that Augustus gave up on Tiberius, adopted Agrippa’s sons and groomed them for succession instead. In 6 BCE Tiberius went into self-imposed exile in Rhodes, giving up his claim to succession in favor of the two.
But fate had not given up on Tiberius. In 2 CE the first brother Lucius died of an unknown illness in Massilia. Two years later, Gaius died fighting in Armenia. The sudden death of Augustus’ heirs forced him to recall Tiberius, who was probably more willing to return to Rome since in 2 BCE his estranged wife Julia was exiled for adultery and treason for plotting against Augustus.
All of this family drama kept Augustus from focusing on the empire’s new German territories. For 13 years western Germania had been under nominal Roman rule, but in practice little had changed. Powerful tribes still dominated society and there was very little trade and construction on the eastern side of the Rhine.
Tiberius and his legions toured throughout Germania from 4-5 CE as a show of strength and to intimidate the Germans into paying taxes to Rome. After awing the western Germans, Tiberius decided he was going to surpass his brother’s accomplishments and invade Magna Germania. The plan was for Tiberius to lead 8 legions from the Middle Rhine against king Maroboduus of Boiohaemum or modern-day Bohemia, while simultaneously three legions from the Lower Rhine flanked his position. The legions positioned themselves and were about to march in 6 CE when a major rebellion broke out in Illyria, that province just east of Italy across the Adriatic Sea. This revolt evolved into a war known as the Bellum Batonianum, the War of the Batos, named after their leaders Bato the Daesitiate and Bato the Breucian, and was one of the largest revolts Rome had ever faced. Illyria had long provided auxiliary armies to Rome’s legions, meaning the Illyrians were disciplined, organized and had large-standing armies. Ancient sources are prone to exaggeration but the Batos’ total forces probably numbered in the hundreds of thousands. This massive revolt by professional soldiers just east of Italy delayed the invasion of Germania as Tiberius fought them from 6-9 CE.
Augustus and Tiberius again ignored Germania and in 6 CE Augustus made Publius Quinctilius Varus governor of the German territories. The classical sources villainize Varus because of his later failures, but modern scholars have been kinder to him. Modern scholars argue that Varus was probably not any more corrupt than your average Roman governor, though that isn’t saying too much. Furthermore, he was a decently-intelligent administrator, who had served as governor of Africa and then Syria before his tenure in Germania. Varus did have two major faults though: he was a mediocre governor in an un-Romanized territory that needed someone brilliant, and he was a poor military strategist on the most hostile border of the empire. Had he been stationed as governor of an Iberian province, or somewhere in Anatolia, he probably would have lived a decent if unremarkable life. Instead, this mediocre man was given the most important governorship in the entire Roman world.
Varus understood that as long as Germania remained German it would always be hostile to Roman rule. Varus looked across the Rhine at Gallia as an example of how to successfully reform a rebellious, supposedly ‘barbarian’ people into Romans. He decided to rapidly Romanize the province by creating cities and having Germans adopt a Roman identity to replace tribal affiliations. Varus collected taxes, founded new settlements and administered justice when needed. However, he was largely dismissive of the Germans who he viewed as backward and uncivilized and demanded tribute. These heavy-handed tactics imbittered the Germans against the Roman presence. In 9 CE one of Varus’ trusted German advisors Arminius, told him a revolt was happening to the east. The governor assembled three legions and marched to quash the rebellion.
But before we get to that we have to backtrack a little and bring Arminius into the story because he is an incredibly important historical figure. Born in 18 BCE, Arminius was the eldest son of a German chief. During Drusus campaigns’ Arminius’ father offered him as a hostage. The young boy was taken to Rome where he was educated in Latin and learned Roman-style warfare and probably served in some capacity in the legions. Around 8 CE Arminius was transferred to western Germania where he served as an important liaison for governor Varus since he was still a German noble. Varus grew to like Arminius who feigned mutual respect.
But Arminius hated Varus and the Romans. Arminius believed Rome was destroying everything that made Germania what it was. It took Germania’s young men from their homes and raised them to fight as auxiliaries in its armies, a very dishonorable position. While the native Germans did have some organization they were still able to gain individual honor in combat. Meanwhile Roman-style warfare subsumed the identity of individual soldiers in favor of the unit. Furthermore, auxiliaries didn’t get the same honors as the legions and they were subordinate to the legions.
In addition to this dishonorable style of warfare, Arminius hated how the Romans disrespected Germanic culture. They imported wine, theater and other unmanly and decadent lifestyles. Rome burned and cut down beautiful sacred forests to construct its ugly forts and walled cities. They built shrines to foreign gods and discouraged worship of the Germanic pantheon. And all of this was paid for by harsh tribute exacted from the conquered German people. Arminius balked at the thought of his hardy, sylvan, warrior-people turning into soft, wine-addled, effeminate city-dwellers and he plotted with Germanic chiefs to ambush the Romans.
On Arminius’ advice, Varus marched eastward in the summer of 9 CE with three legions and six auxiliary cohorts until they arrived in west-central Germania. Varus administered Roman justice and collected tribute while his legions occupied the territory while Arminius coordinated his German allies. Arminius’ plot was almost undone when his uncle told Varus of his scheme. But Varus dismissed the warning, trusting in his young advisor. As autumn approached the Romans prepared to head back to the Rhine when they got news of a revolt northwest of their position. Arminius suggested that they crush the rebellion before it had a chance to grow. Varus agreed and marched his troops northwest into the Teutoburg Forest.
Varus believed this was a minor rebellion, incapable of standing up against his incredible army of three legions, six auxiliary cohorts and three cavalry cohorts. As such, his men marched out of formation and interspersed among them were camp followers. The massive army was spread out an incredible 15-20 kilometers from front to back. The Romans were marching through mud across a low glade with low visibility due to the thick woods. To the south the Germans constructed a 400-meter long spiked palisade wall along the hills. To the north was an impassable swamp. There was no better place on Earth for an ambush.
On a signal the Germans hurled javelins at the Romans from their fortified position then burst out of their fortifications. The Romans were caught completely off-guard and were unable to get into position since the legionaries walked alongside auxiliaries and camp followers. The camp followers and many cowardly or disloyal auxiliaries fled, bumping into the legionaries, causing chaos and such a noise that the commanders couldn’t be heard above the commotion. Before the battle Arminius had taught his fellow Germans how Roman formations worked and the Germans directed large groups to swallow up smaller cohorts one by one.
The Romans fought for their lives but the Germans had every advantage and the slaughter was immense. When night fell the Romans regrouped and built a fortified camp north of the killing fields. But this camp just meant they were now surrounded by a superior force who understood the terrain and their tactics. Varus knew his men couldn’t survive long in enemy territory so the following morning they attempted to break out. That morning a storm drenched the battlefield, rendering the Roman bows useless as the sinews went slack when wet. Meanwhile German javelins remained deadly effective. After another day of slaughter a number of Romans managed to escape and head northwestward. There they fell into another trap as a German army waited in the surrounding hills and slaughtered the remainder of the army. Nearly every Roman soldier who had marched with Varus that summer was either killed, enslaved or fled.
The Germans showed no mercy to their captives. Tacitus recounts, “They put out the eyes of some of them and cut off the hands of others; they sewed up the mouth of one of them after first cutting out his tongue, which one of the barbarians held in his hand, exclaiming “At last, you viper, you have ceased to hiss.” Others were boiled or burned alive as sacrifices to the German gods.
This was the greatest Roman military disaster since the Battle of Carrhae. The 17th, 18th and 19th legions were destroyed and their numbers went unused for fear of bad luck. Their eagles had been captured. Worse still, much of Germania was now uniting under Arminius to expel the Roman invaders. Arminius’ first act as the leader of the German tribes was to behead governor Varus and send his head to Maroboduus, king of Bohemia. Marobodouus was the only German with power to rival Arminius, and the young upstart wanted the old king to know who held true power in Germania.
Next, Arminius ordered the mass beheading of the dead Romans and the confiscation of their armor. He then turned his armies westward towards the Roman fort of Aliso. They must have been a terrible sight to behold. Perhaps a third of that army would be wearing dented, dirty Roman armor, covered in dried blood, while the rest wore traditional German accoutrements. When they arrived at the fort Arminius’ troops displayed the heads of the slain legionaries. The Germans assaulted the camp though they were pushed back by the stalwart defenders. A storm broke out and the Roman soldiers escaped, leaving the civilians to the Germans, who captured the fort and the territories east of the Rhine. These fleeing Romans made it to Gallia and told about the slaughter of the three legions and Varus’ death. Shock and mourning gripped Rome. When Augustus heard about what had happened he rent his clothes and screamed, “Varus, give me back my legions!”
While Augustus ruled the empire from Rome, Tiberius was put in charge of halting the German army and reconquering their lost territory on the east bank of the Rhine. Tiberius fought with Arminius from 10-11 CE when word came to him that the 73 year old Augustus had fallen ill. Tiberius returned to Rome to secure his succession while leaving his son Germanicus Julius Caesar to fight Arminius. In 14 CE Augustus passed, and Tiberius became the new Roman emperor.
By the end of 16 CE Tiberius decided that the eastern Rhine was lost. Against Germanicus’ protests, Emperor Tiberius ended the wars with Arminius and stationed the legions in forts all across the Rhine frontier. Rarely did the Romans ever cross the Rhine again.
But what of the German threat? Well, whether Tiberius showed wisdom or whether his exhaustion turned to good fortune, the retreat across the Rhine ended the threat of German invasion. Arminius recognized that attacking Roman forts outside of Germania was a losing strategy. Instead he decided he was going to conquer the rest of Germania. In 17 or 18 CE he waged war against the only German who rivaled his power, Maroboduus. Arminius defeated his armies and Maroboduus fled, taking asylum in Rome.
Arminius had done the unthinkable: he was King of Germania. But even as he ascended to this unprecedented position the chiefs of the various tribes plotted against him. The Germans viewed themselves as a free people who did not bend the knee to kings or emperors and Arminius was killed by his fellow chiefs. Arminius’ execution meant that the Germans refused to be ruled by anyone, even their own.
The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest had a major impact on Rome and Gallia. For the Romans, this was a second major invasion of a foreign land that had ended in complete slaughter after Crassus’ invasion of Persia. From this point on to the fall of the empire Rome did not engage in any large-scale expansion, and instead it concentrated on securing its borders. [The only major provinces added were Dacia and briefly Mesopotamia, though this was quickly abandoned].
For Gallia and the people who lived there the Battle of the Teutoburg forest made them civilized in the Roman eyes. Gallia was relatively peaceful by this time, even more so than some older Roman provinces such as Illyria. They had large cities, industry, were part of the priesthood and served in the army. Henceforth, the governors of Gallia and the Roman state propagated the notion that the Three Gauls were a noble, civilized land with cultured people that were part of a great Roman community. Meanwhile Germania was a culture-less, city-less forested expanse with violent barbarians.
Next time, this relationship will be tested as the Druids make one final stand against Rome and its gods.
Ancient History Encyclopedia
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Guerard Albert Leon French Civilization: From Its Origins to the Close of the Middle Ages, 1921.
Woolf, Greg, Becoming Roman, 1998
Seutonius, De Vita Caesarum
Cassius Dio, Roman History
Drinkwater, J.E., Roman Gaul, 1983
Cassius Dio’s Roman History
Plutarch’s biographies of Roman emperors.
Suetonius’ De Vita Caesarum
Tacitus’ Annals and Histories