The Roman Massacre at Teutoburg Forest
Massacre at the Teutoburg Forest
Rome’s greatest defeat came in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, which I would rather label the Massacre or Ambush at Teutoburg Forest. To me, a battle results from a conscious decision on the part of two commanders to engage one another. There was no decision like that in this case because the Romans were not in a position to defend themselves.
The attack took place in 9 A.D. against the legions (XVII, XVIII, and XIX) of Sextus Quinctilius Varus who had been appointed Roman commander over Germania and was sent there to put down German revolts. All three legions were wiped out, and when the seventy-two year Caesar Augustus was told of the debacle, he screamed for Varus to “bring back my eagles”.
Part of the intrigue of the story centers on Arminius, son of the leader of the German tribe Cherusci, who was given to the Romans as a hostage in 11 B.C. He was raised in Rome, eventually being elevated to a Knight. Arminius (known to the Germans as Hermann), was assigned to the legions of Varus as a trusted advisor, but in secret he plotted with the German tribes to attack the Roman expeditionary force.
Before we get to the massacre, we’ll need to talk about the Geography. The following satellite view positions the Teutoburg forest in Northern Germany.
It sits 130 miles east of Amsterdam, 70 miles west of Hannover, and 130 miles northeast of Cologne.
View 2 below shows a close up of the main area of conflict.
Key reference points include the cities of Engter and Venne, along with Kalkriese Hill, which was directly involved in the action. The majority of excavated Roman remains from the battle were found in the boxed area shown.
View 3 is a close up of the area north of Kalkriese Hill.
As noted in the photo, there are modern towers which allow visitors to survey the battlefield and there is one spot marked as the site of the ambush. There is also a museum there. One of the important things to notice in this view is the relationship between Kalkriese Hill and the Great Bog. The Roman Army became trapped in the narrow corridor (estimated at 200 yards wide) between the hill and the bog, which proved to be a tactical advantage for the Germans. To make the trap complete, they dug a trench in the road so the Roman Army was blocked from three sides.
Lastly, we have view 4 which depicts the movements of the Roman Army during the battle.
I want to emphasize that my description of the course of the battle is based on the documents I reviewed and is, by necessity, conjectural. The antiquarian writers, most notably Dio, cannot be trusted. Descriptive data is sparse and the writers have agendas so one does not know where the truth lies. Lack of details does not change the major facts of the battle or its significance, however.
The battle opened with the Roman Army marching west into the Teutoburg Forest. Descriptions have it stretched out as much as nine miles in a narrow column. This seems logical since axe men would have been cutting down trees and the resulting roadway would have been narrow. When the army reached a point northeast of Osnabruck they were ambushed. Dio says that Arminius asked to be excused to check on auxiliaries but instead met up with his allies to set up the attack.
The Romans were ambushed at 1, in the midst of a heavy rainstorm, and lost scores of men because they could not deploy adequately against the German archers. By the end of the first day, they had regained their footing and built a fortified camp where they spent the first night. Assailed again in the morning they were able to break out to the southeast and reached 2, a point north of the Wiehen Hills and northwest of Ostercappeln. It’s unclear whether they spent the night there, but that is a possibility. The next day the army resumed its trek to the northwest, still in heavy rain, arriving at 3, an area north of the Kalkriese Hill, where the final massacre took place. Trapped in the narrow corridor between the Kalkriese Hill and the Great Bog, the rest of the army was destroyed.
Three legions were wiped out with an equivalent number of auxiliaries totaling some 20,000. Most of the Roman commanders including Varus committed suicide once they realized there was no escape.
From a tactical standpoint the Roman Army could not have survived this “perfect storm” of tactical obstacles. Let me delineate.
1) They were ambushed in unfamiliar territory
2) They were unable to efficiently form into battle because of the disposition of the caravan
3) They were trapped in wooded terrain
4) They were double crossed by allies who could communicate vital intelligence
5) There was a driving rainstorm during the entire assault
Would Caesar have survived this challenge?
Varus was criticized as politician rather than a military leader but he must have had many good men under him. At the time of his death Varus would have been the forth ranked man in Rome after Augustus, Tiberius, and Germanicus.