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The battle of the Teutoburg Forest July 18, 2011

Posted by Jenny in ancient Rome, classical studies, history.
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Roman ceremonial mask displayed at the Kalkriese Museum, near the battle site

This post is one of a series on “The Wilds of Germania,” based on writings by the Roman historian Tacitus. This particular post relies primarily on other sources, as Tacitus did not describe the battle in his writings—he only described the grisly scene that met the eyes of Romans who visited the site six years later.

This battle, about which very little is known with certainty, has been reinterpreted by many individuals, particularly for the cause of German nationalism.

Our knowledge of the battle of the Teutoburg Forest comes ultimately from several Roman historians: Velleius Paterculus, Cassius Dio, Publius Annius Florus, and Cornelius Tacitus. As mentioned above, Tacitus did not write about the battle but only about its aftermath—the battle occurred during the reign of Augustus, and his Annals of Imperial Rome begins with the death of Augustus and the succession of Tiberius. His Germania is an anthropological description of the German peoples rather than an account of Roman-German conflicts.

There are many contradictions in these early accounts, but it is generally agreed that the Teutoburg Forest battle, fought in September of the year 9 A.D., was a catastrophe for the Romans and a triumph for the Germans. Three legions of Roman soldiers under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus, the XVII, XVIII, and XIX, were ambushed and virtually wiped out by German tribes who put aside their traditional rivalries to defeat the hated Romans. The tribes were secretly organized by a man of German origin who had been given to the Romans as tribute when he was just a boy. He had been educated in Rome and was trusted as an associate by Varus. The Romans called him Arminius. His name was later “re-Germanicized” to Hermann.

Romanticized depiction of "Hermann," Johann Peter Theodor Jansen, 1870

I will use the German name in this discussion, even though it is a bit spurious (we don’t actually know his birth name), simply because the man was indeed German in his origin and in his allegiance. Hermann returned to his homeland with the army of Varus and secretly negotiated alliances between the German tribes: the Cherusci, Marsi, Chatti, Bructeri, Chauci, Sicambri, and Suebi. When Varus was moving his forces from his summer camp near the Weser River to his winter base near the Rhine, Hermann invented stories of a rebellion of Germans in a nearby town and made sure Varus heard of it—and that it was a matter that needed to be tended to urgently.

One of the many contradictions in the accounts concerns the character of Varus. The Wikipedia article describes him as a ruthless individual given to practicing crucifixion as punishment for rebels. However, the account of Velleius Paterculus describes Varus as “of a mild disposition and a sedate manner.”

Varus took his army through unfamiliar territory to reach the area of the supposed rebellion. His troops marched in a long, narrow line because of the nature of the terrain: they had bogs on one side and hills on the other. The line is said to have extended as far as 12 miles. The Germans had constructed defense works as they waited for the hapless Romans to come along.

Recreated German fortifications

The Germans rained down their javelins on the Romans from behind their fortifications, and then, as they saw many Romans falling or fleeing, they ran in pursuit. According to one account, the battle lasted less than a day; according to another, it lasted three days, with the Romans breaking out with heavy losses, establishing a camp, then fighting again with yet more losses, fleeing, and enduring casualties of nearly all of their number—estimated at 15,000 to 20,000 total. The ones who survived were said to be enslaved or sacrificed, some even supposedly cooked in pots. Varus committed suicide. Vellius Paterculus wrote: The savage enemy mangled the half-burned body of Varus. His head was cut off and sent to Marobodus [king of the Marcomanni, a Germanic people] and by him sent to the Emperor; and so at length received honorable burial in the sepulcher of his family.

Memorial to a centurion of the XXVIII legion named Marcus Caelius. Erected by his brother.

The account of Cassius Dio describes the area of the battle as full of mountains, ravines, and impenetrable forest. At the site now recognized as the most probable location of the battle, near Osnabrueck in northwestern Germany, no such features exist. Jona Lendering of livius.org, a website devoted to ancient history, writes: Dio thought that the Germanic tribes lived on the edges of the earth, which the ancients conceptualized as a big forest, occupied by barbarian savages. Dio mentions mountains, ravines, and impenetrable forests…. The battlefield has been discovered near Osnabrueck, and there were neither mountains nor ravines. There may have been a forest, but it was certainly not impenetrable, because there was a village on walking distance from the excavated part of the battlefield.

Teutoburg Forest as it is today

A mythicized version of the story of the battle fed into feelings of German pride and nationalism, starting in the 19th century and continuing well into the 20th. A giant statue of Hermann was erected.

Hermann's Memorial

The symbolically weighty images were perpetuated in both painting and sculpture.

"Varus's Battle" by Otto Albert Koch, 1909

I really wonder about all those helmets with wings on them…is there any historical basis for that?

Teutoburg Forest has even been used as a touchstone by right-wingers in the U.S., where the “decentralized” governance of the German tribes is set in opposition to the “centralizing features of Roman law” (read “states’ rights” versus that demon of the federal government). This website features a description of the battle beside advertisements for the John Birch Society.

Tacitus gives us the following description of Roman soldiers under Germanicus visiting the battle site. The scene lived up to its horrible associations. Varus’ extensive first camp, with its broad extent and headquarters marked out, testified to the whole army’s labors. Then a half-ruined breastwork and shallow ditch showed where the last pathetic remnant had gathered. 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—also human heads, fastened to tree trunks. In groves nearby were the outlandish altars at which the Germans had massacred the Roman colonels and senior company commanders…. And so, six years after the disaster, a Roman army came to this place and buried the bones of the men of three divisions.

Next to come: the campaigns of Germanicus.

"Grave of Arminius" (Hermann) by Caspar David Friedrich, 1812

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Comments»

1. Thomas Stazyk - July 18, 2011

You tell these stories so well! I’ve wondered about the winged helmets, too. In that melee something like that could be more of a liability than an asset.

2. Jenny - July 18, 2011

I have a sneaking suspicion that the winged helmets were invented later, maybe much later, and placed atop the heads of the unwitting folks who lived in the first century A.D. One of the things that interests me about this period is how much it was reinterpreted later. If we could go back in a time machine, what interesting and unexpected things we would actually find!

Thomas Stazyk - July 18, 2011

That would be interesting. I’m sure the battles did not unfold the way they are portrayed in paintings–I don’t know how anyone would have survived!

Jenny - July 18, 2011

I think, even though I usually tend to side with the “rebels” or the people oppressed by an empire, in this case, I look at the Roman ceremonial mask depicted above, with its perhaps unintentional expression of grief, and I sympathize with that rather than the German side. A purely emotional reaction.

3. brian - July 18, 2011

That description of Germanicus’ visit is spooky even to contemplate! Somehow I always sympathize with the Romans, maybe just because they are more modern. Even if the Germans had written their side of the story it would have probably been so full of bloodlust, bombast, and strange omens that I couldn’t relate. The idea of Varrus being mild mannered makes me think of reading The Gallic Wars in high school. Caesar comes across as this reasonable, fairminded guy who just sort of accidentally conquers Gaul while helping out allies and defending the Romans from unreasonabl attacks. But oh yeah he does sometimes have to slaughter all his prisoners or sell an entire ethnic group into slavery to make a point when they get too unruly. Just part of the job, you know?

It is ironic that at the time the Germans were admiring silly paintings of their ancestors’ headgear they were fitting their soldiers with dashing helmets with a big spike sticking out of the top. After WWI broke out Allied marksmen discovered they were useful to help spot German heads peeking out of the trenches. At some point they wised up and made them detachable.

Jenny - July 18, 2011

Most of us know how the nationalistic spirit of Hitler galvanized his country and led to WW2 after the seeming disgrace and despair that followed the Versailles Treaty. But I plan to look into this further—not that it’s an especially obscure part of history, but just for my own personal information. My father was also interested in this period, writing a book about German rearmament in the early 30s.

4. Roon - July 18, 2011

A fine, balanced account of an oft-told (and oft-distorted) story, with many interesting details and well-selected quotes. Tacitus’s vision of the battlefield six years later is extremely graphic. I shall have to buy his book about Germania. Thanks for reminding me of him, Jenny!

5. kaslkaos - July 19, 2011

Just coming out of lurkdom to say I love this stories. I’m more in it for the mythic elements, though, the mystic forests, and clashing battles, etc..


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