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Battle of the Teutoburg Forest

(probably 9-11 September 9 CE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Battle of the Teutoburg Forest (9 CE) was a huge defeat of the Roman army in Germany. All three Roman legions and all other troops fell in the fight.

Background of events

Teutoburg Forest in fog and rain. This could look like a battlefield.
Author: Nikater | Under the Creative Commons License by - On the same terms 3.0.

The winning campaigns of Drusus the Elder and Tiberius in Germania at the turn of the era led to the formation of a Roman province between the Rhine and the Elbe.
During one of the later Germanic campaigns, the Romans ventured into distant lands inhabited by numerous tribes of Cheruscians and Tempters. Legionaries brutally treated the conquered population by committing many rapes and plundering. This led to the armed uprising of Germanic tribes, which began to concentrate in the area of ​​the forested hill Riesekalkberg in the hill range of the Teutoburg Forest.

When news reached the Augustus about problems with the romanization of conquered territories, he decided to send a provincial governor to suppress the rebellion of the provincial governor Publius Quinctilius Varus, an experienced soldier who became famous for choking the Judaic uprising in 4 BCE. He was, however, definitely a worse administrator. He led the Roman administration and judiciary very badly and did not maintain the proper discipline and readiness of his troops.

When at the end of the summer of 9 CE, Varus received a report about the uprising under the leadership of the Prince of Cherusks, Arminiusreacted quickly, gathering an army and immediately rushing at the enemy. From the very beginning, Varus definitely weakened his forces, sending back many small units. In addition, he set off with a column loaded with large rolling stocks as well as families and slaves of soldiers, which definitely slowed down and destabilized the army. The Roman forces nevertheless began their march after the Germans.

Varus army marching route.
Rochala Paweł, Teutoburg Forest 9 CE, Warsaw 2005


Roman army

The Varus forces consisted of of 3 legions (XVII, XVIII, XIX), 3 alae horsemen and 6 independent auxiliary cohorts.
In total, the Roman army was between 20,000 and 25,000 soldiers.

Arminius’ army

The forces of Arminiuswere created by warriors from the tribes of: Cherusci, Bructeri, Marsi and Chatti. The total number was around 18,000 men.


A trailing and unformed column of Roman soldiers with numerous rolling stock entered the Teutoburg Forest probably not far north from the current town of Osnabrück. There, the Romans walked through a little-known area, overgrown with forests, hilly and sometimes wetlands. It was necessary to constantly cut down trees, move bridges, level chasms and eliminate all obstacles. The army column was dangerously extended for nearly 20 km, which further hindered possible defence.

The barbarians decided to take advantage of the situation by attacking Roman troops. Arrows and spears covered the Romans stuck in the woods. Legionaries were powerless against warriors glaring at them from all sides. Any disconnection from the ranks and attempted offensive were doomed to failure. Arminius’s warriors were extremely fast and did not work in groups, so at any time they could retreat to a safe position and further hurt the Romans with missiles.

Panorama of the Teutoburg Forest.
Author: Arminia | Creative Commons Attribution license - Under the same conditions, 3.0.

Already on the first day of fighting, losses in Roman troops were significant. Despite everything, Varus’ army managed to reach a large clearing, where the camp was broken, knowing that the weaker and less disciplined Arminius warriors would not dare to emerge from the dark forests of Germany. To facilitate further march, everything that seemed unnecessary was burned.
The next day, the Roman army again entered the dense forests, where it was impossible to keep compact. There, Arminius’s warriors again attacked, offending the Romans from all sides. Roman troops bled terribly. Despite the large casualties, they managed to set up the camp again in a clearing and set off on the third day. This time the Romans were not in the rainy weather. After a violent downpour, the swampy area was impassable, and soaked weapons and clothing weighed twice as much as originally.

Reconstruction of improvised fortifications prepared by Germanic tribes for the final phase of the battle, near Kalkriese.
Author: Markus Schweiß | Creative Commons license Attribution - On the same terms 3.0.

General looseness of the formation, low morale and low numbers encouraged extremely determined Germans to a massive attack on the remains of Roman troops. Immediately at the very beginning of the battle, Varus, wanting to break through to the Rhine, was wounded and, seeing no chance of rescue, and afraid of being caught alive, committed suicide. His example was followed by the highest-ranking officers, three legionary legates. The battle turned into a slaughter of completely unformed Romans. The final surrender was announced by one of the few survivors, the prefect of the camp, Ceylon. The fighting probably lasted from 9 to 11 September.

Visualization of the defeat of the Roman army in the Teutoburg forest.


A painting depicting attacking German warriors.

During 3 days and 2 nights of fighting all 3 Roman legions and all other troops fell. In total, probably between 20,000 and 25,000 soldiers were killed along with the highest command. He died primipilus of the 18th legion – Manius Marcus Celius. Others have their eyes peeled off and their hands cut off again. The fate of those captured who had to live the miserable life of a barbarian servant was the best. Only a few managed to slip out of the trap and reach the Rhine. There were about 7,000 victims on the side of Arminius’s army.

The defeat in the Teutoburg Forest was one of the largest in Rome’s history and stopped the further conquest of Germany. Arminius sent the severed head of Varus as a gift to the Marcomanni king Marbod. However, he sent her to Rome, where Octavian buried her in the family’s mausoleum. Ancient sources say that on sleepless nights, Octavian Augustus walked around the corridors of his palace calling for “Quinctili Vare, legiones redde – Varus, give me back my legions!”1. According to Suetonius, August, as a sign of mourning, did not cut his hair for months and rip his clothes off.

As a result of the defeat, the Roman army was for some time reduced to 25 legions, and the numbers XVII, XVIII and XIX were never used later. Tiberius was immediately sent to the Rhine, and all available troops from other provinces were to strengthen his forces. Soon in the provinces of Lower and Upper Germania along the west bank of the river, there were eight legions and at least the same number of auxiliary troops. Such preparations were mainly due to fear of the great German invasion. However, the attack did not occur.
When Tiberius regrouped, he began sending expeditions to punish beyond the Rhine. His work on the Rhine was continued by Germanicus, who in 13 CE became the commander in chief of the Rhine legions.

In the years 15 and 16 CE, at the head of the Roman army, he twice reached the Teutoburg Forest. The first time he buried the bones of Varus legionaries, and the second he beat Arminius, but these actions did not ensure the recovery of lost Germanic lands. Shortly afterwards, the emperor Tiberius decided that wars with the Germans were too expensive and dismissed Germanicus.

Ultimately, the border of the Roman Empire in this region was decided to be based on the Rhine, seeing no need to annex new, economically unattractive lands from the Romans’ perspective.

Revenge of Germanicus for the defeat of Varus in 9 CE

  1. Suetonius, Augustus, 23
  • Cowan Ross, Wojny, bitwy i wojownicy rzymscy
  • Holmes Richard, Wielkie bitwy i kampanie
  • Rochala Paweł, Las Teutoburski 9 rok n.e., Warszawa 2005

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