Battle of the Teutoburg Forest

Eyridiki Sellou | Nov 2, 2023

Table of Content


The battle of the Teutoburg Forest or Teutoburg Forest, also called Clades Variana, "disaster of Varus", was an armed confrontation that took place in the Teutonic forest, near modern Osnabrück (Lower Saxony, Germany), in the year 9, between an alliance of Germanic tribes led by the warlord Arminius, and three legions of the Roman Empire led by Publius Quintilius Varus, legate in the region of Germania (which stretched from the Rhine in the west to beyond the Vistula in the east, and from Scandinavia in the north, which in those times was believed to be an island and not a peninsula, to the Danube and the Black Sea (its easternmost part being known as Germania Sarmatica). ...

Varus and his army were taken by deception to the forest by Arminius, a Keruscan nobleman who served as an auxiliary and had Roman citizenship. In that place, of complicated orography, the Romans were victims of an ambush where the XVII, XVIII and XIX legions, six auxiliary cohorts and three cavalry wings were annihilated. Varus ended up committing suicide when he saw everything lost and the numbers of those legions were never used again.

The catastrophic Roman defeat was decisive because, despite the punitive campaigns of Tiberius and Germanicus and the creation of the boundary on the Rhine and Danube rivers, they ended up giving up any attempt to conquer the territories east of the Rhine, setting the border between the Empire and the barbarians on its course for four hundred years.

The written sources that have survived are four, though all questionable because no author was a direct witness. The first is Veleius Paterculus, a Roman officer and personal friend of Tiberius who served east of the Rhine and knew Germania. He wrote some twenty years after the disaster and favors his friend in telling the story. A century later Tacitus appears, he describes Germanicus and Augustus in good terms but is very critical of Tiberius. At the same time Florus, a continuator of the work of Titus Livy, recounts the campaigns in Germania, being critical of Augustus, which indicates that his sources do not come from imperial propaganda. Finally, Dion Cassius, two centuries after the battle, using several carefully chosen sources, gave his own account, somewhat divergent from the others, although it presents errors in describing the orography of the battlefield.

After the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar, the Romans gained a province with a long frontier with the Germans, warlike peoples who constantly crossed over to plunder the border territory. This eventually produced a series of punitive expeditions that led to the occupation of the territory.

First government of Tiberius

After the untimely death of General Nero Claudius Drusus, his older brother, Tiberius Claudius Nero, continued operations. with eight legions and got all the tribes in the area to send requests for peace, except the Sicambrians and Suevi (possibly Marcomans), from them to Gaul, where they remained quiet.

The following year he was consul, and after experiencing some unrest in Germania, he had some forts built (such as Oberaden and Aliso) as far as the Weser (Visurgis). Tiberius went into "voluntary exile" in 6 B.C., being succeeded by an unknown governor, possibly Gaius Sencius Saturninus.

In 3 B.C. the province was entrusted to Lucius Domitius Enobarbus, who had the Longi Pontes, "Long Bridges", a pontoon road across the marshes between the Rhine and the river Ems (Amisa), built. According to modern historians, based on the scarce sources, with the army of Recia, Enobarbus was able to leave Augusta Vindelicorum (Augsburg), cross the Danube (Istria) through modern Regensburg and follow the Saale until he reached the river Elbe (Albis), building an altar to mark the boundaries of the new provinces. He defeated the Hermundurians and isolated them from the Marcomans of modern Bohemia and wandered through territories of the Cathians and Cheruscans, intervening in their internal affairs but not considering them subdued. He then founded the Colonia Ubiorum (Cologne) on the banks of the Rhine in 2 BC.

He was succeeded by Marcus Vinicius, legatus Augusti pro praetore of Gaul, Recia and Germania up to the course of the river Weser, in the year 1, who succeeded in subduing an important revolt of the Keruscans. In the year 4 Tiberius returned from his exile in Rhodes to Germania with the mission to change the political structures of the subdued tribes. His first expedition subdued the Cananephates, Catullians and Brucians and pacified the Keruscans, even crossing the Weser. He was accompanied in these operations by his legate, Saturninus, and a winter quarters was built on the upper reaches of the Lippe (Lupia) River, possibly at Anreppen.

Return of Tiberius

In year 5 Tiberius again crossed the Rhine and marched overland along the Weser to the mouth of the Elbe in the North Sea, forcing the Caucasian chiefs to surrender on their knees before him. Meanwhile, his fleet sailed along the northern coasts of Germania and entered the Elbe inland, where it boarded part of Tiberius' army, subduing the Longobards and Hermundurians. The Cimbrians, Harudes and Semnones, located east of the Elbe, became Rome's clients.

Expedition against the Marcomans

Occupied the center and north of Germania up to the Elbe, the territory of the Marcomans to the southeast was missing, ruled by king Marbod, who had 70 000 infantry and 4000 horsemen, so it was a threat to the Roman Germania, Pannonia and Noricum. Tiberius planned everything and in year 6 launched the great offensive The legate Saturninus left Mogontiacum with two or three legions, possibly the XVII, XVIII and XIX, which joined the army of Recia, probably formed by legions I Germanica and V Alaudae. It crossed the Weser and then followed the Elbe, and apparently crossed the lands of the Caucasians to reach the former lands of the Boyos, but by then they had been conquered by the Marcomans. Recia's legions were to follow the river Main (Moenus) as a third attacking group. The groups coming from the Rhine would meet in a large camp located in the present Marktbreit.

Tiberius left Carnuntum crossing the Danube accompanied by the consul and legate Marcus Emilius Lepidus, leading four or five more legions, VIII Augusta of Pannonia, XV Apollinaris and XX Valeria Victrix of Illyria, XXI Rapax of Recia, XIII Gemina, XIV Gemina and XVI Gallica of Upper Germania and an unknown unit. Some speak of ten legions, seventy auxiliary cohorts, fourteen cavalry wings and numerous allies. In total, about 150,000 troops in one of the largest military operations of antiquity. He advanced through present-day Moravia supported by a fleet (leaving a camp in Mušov) to continue to Bohemia. However, five days behind Saturninus, news reached him of a revolt in Illyria, so he had to retreat. Both he and Saturninus received triumphal honors for the campaign.

Government of Varo

After Tiberius left to suppress the revolt, the emperor appointed as his successor in Germania Publius Quintilius Varus as legatus Augusti pro praetore. His rule would be from the 7th to the 10th, unless extended by the emperor.

Since the province was already considered pacified and they wanted to start integrating it into the Roman administration, instead of sending an experienced military officer, an experienced official and politician was commissioned: but "the Germans had been defeated rather than subdued". His war experience is limited to putting down a Jewish rebellion when he was governor in Syria. However, some believe that his mission was to maintain the status quo so that no tribe would leave the Roman alliance. Records indicate that Varus did not attempt to establish the imperial government until his last year.

The truth is that the Germans were becoming accustomed to living alongside the advances of Roman culture, especially trade, but they had not forgotten their independence or ancestral customs. But these advantages were not only economic, since Roman law was a much more developed system of justice, communications were improved and endemic wars between tribes, something common in their way of life, but whose elimination was very beneficial. It is possible that with more time, the gradual change would have allowed their complete integration but this possibility was ended with Varus. As usual, he began by imposing Roman laws and their taxes, which led to growing discontent, which was agglutinated by an auxiliary troop leader and Keruscan nobleman, Arminius. The reality was that the province needed to produce more revenue for road construction projects that would allow its integration into the Empire and maintain a garrison that would guarantee the application of Roman justice.

Archaeology shows that there was no permanent center where the officials of the imperial bureaucracy could live. He had certainly built roads leading to Oppidum Ubiorum, but it was on the other side of the Rhine. Nor was it the mission of the governors to collect taxes, since Augustus had created a corps of professional collectors who collected on the basis of a census, but the latter was never done in Germania, where half of the population was only subject to Rome in summer, under its military presence, and the other was allied, but independent.

To the discontent would have contributed the behavior of Varus himself. For example, he issued an edict against the Catos for raping a lictor and also engaged in licentious and violent behavior with his subordinates: "But it is more difficult to retain than to create provinces; they are won by force, secured by justice." Varus forgot that many tribes had submitted to Drusus and his successors more by their moral qualities than by arms.

Arminius had been trained by the Romans, held their citizenship and had attained equestrian rank. Given as a child by his family as a hostage to secure the loyalty of the Keruscans, he was educated as a Roman, hoping that one day he would be a tribal leader loyal to the Empire and facilitate the integration of his people. He was well aware of Roman military doctrine and how vulnerable his legions were to Germanic terrain. He began plotting, first with a few and then with many, planning the trap in detail. He won over those most hostile to the Empire and continued with the undecided, gathering a significant mass following, which took him several months. It is not clear why he turned against the Romans, it is more than likely that he obeyed not so much because of a nationalist sentiment that they adduced in the 19th century as because of personal political ambitions: too much Roman intervention in the internal affairs of his tribe or, as a Germanic nobleman, he suffered more from the burden of Varus' taxation. The problem is that both the latter and his father Segimero, were trusted friends of the governor. There were those who warned Varus of the conspiracy and the falsity of the friendship of the Keruscans, such as Segestes, a nobleman of that tribe, but he refused to hear them, reprimanding the accusers for slandering his friends.

It should be noted that, given his background, it is understandable that Varus trusted Arminius. Moreover, the Keruscan nobleman was key to Roman plans. Roman diplomacy was based on divide et impera, "divide and rule", seeking allies among the Germanic peoples (Frisians, Ubians and occasionally the Cathians) to more easily defeat the more hostile ones (Suebi and Sicambrians). Varus hoped that, through Arminius, the Keruscans would become loyal allies.


It is known that Varus' army was composed of three Roman legions, six auxiliary cohorts and three cavalry wings. The legions, commanded by the legate Gaius Numonius Vala, were the XVII at Novaesium (Neuss), the XVIII at Castra Vetera (Xanten) and the XIX at Oppidum Ubiorum (Cologne). In Germania Superior there were two legions commanded by Lucius Nonius Asprenas, nephew and lieutenant of Varus, the I Germanica and the V Alaudae at Moguntiacum (Mainz). Each legion was to average 4800 heavy infantrymen plus 120 horsemen, and the cohorts and wings about 500 men each.

The British Thomas Smith believed that counting the legions commanded by Asprenas plus the allied troops recruited in Gaul, Varus could count about 50,000 men at the beginning of the year, although only a fraction participated in the battle. Peter Wells believes that about 25 000 people fell in the ambush, of which at least 16 000 were combatants. Sarunas Milisauskas says that there were 15 000 to 20 000 soldiers and Paul Davis 18 000 military and 10 000 civilians. Friedrich Knoke estimates them at 20 000, of which 12 000 were legionaries. Michael McNally puts them at 20 000 to 30 000 total. Hans Delbrück says they were 12 000 to 18 000 soldiers plus 8000 to 12 000 civilians. Richard Gabriel breaks down the imperial force into 18 000 legionaries, 3500-4000 auxiliary infantry, 600 Roman horsemen and 900 of their allies, although these forces were before the summer campaign of year 9. Heinrich von Abendroth gives the highest estimate, 30 000-40 000, while Ernst Müller von Sondermühlen reduces them to 25 000 and Theodor Mommsen to 20 000.

However, Varus' legions were probably incomplete because detachments were probably sent to help in the Illyrian campaigns and the governor had left units garrisoning small forts, in which they were killed by Arminius before the ambush. Kevin Tonwsend notes that they were probably only 7000 to 10 000 soldiers, to which were added some 12 000 to 15 000 civilians. McNally agrees on the reduction of Varus' army, estimating that he had only 21 cohorts of legionaries left, 13. For the same reasons, Alberto Esteban believes that the three legions were incomplete, perhaps only 10,000 men, which together with the auxiliaries and the cavalry would reach 15,000 troops. They would be accompanied by numerous allies, mainly Keruscans, Caucuses and Catos, and non-combatants, such as merchants, slaves, concubines and illegitimate children of the legionaries, perhaps exceeding a total of 20,000 people.

Initially, Albert Wilms considers the possibility that Varus commanded a small army due to the circumstances mentioned above. Perhaps about 12 000, which would mean that each legion would have about 3000 men and each auxiliary cohort and cavalry wing 300. For this he compares with data provided by Tacitus, who says that Germanicus crossed east of the Rhine in the year 14 with 12 000 legionaries, equivalent to four legions according to Wilms. This leads the scholar to consider that Varus must have had fewer legionaries since he only had three legions. Later, he considers that this estimate could be too low and opens himself to the possibility of a total of 20 000 soldiers.

Similar to the previous ones, the British Joanne Ball recognizes that the mention of three more auxiliary legions can make think that they should be 15 000 to 20 000 troops, but probably they were only 10 000 to 15 000, since those units did not operate with the totality of their forces during the campaigns. Moreover, it is probable that they moved separately, allowing them to be attacked at different points.


Archaeology indicates that the Germania of the time was much more populated and with a much more advanced agriculture than the sources of the time report, however, its political organization was limited to tribes that were the agglomeration of several clans, and it lacked large cities, only villages and farms connected by ancient roads. However, its political organization was limited to tribes that were the agglomeration of several clans, and lacked large cities, only villages and farms connected by ancient roads. Each clan was led by a council of nobles who made the main decisions and chose their chiefs in case of war. It should be mentioned that the tribes did not act in unison, for example, the Kerusks were divided between supporters and enemies of Rome.

They did not have a professional army, but each free man served when he had to with the weapons he had. A few were professional warriors in bands loyal to successful nobles; the more victories and booty a warlord achieved the more followers he would have, but rather than military command, what he gained was social influence.

Scottish historian and journalist Adrian Murdoch believes there were about 15 000 warriors during the battle, easily outnumbering Varus. He based his estimates on studies of the population density of the area. He also identifies the tribes involved: Keruscans, Brucians and Angrivarians. According to Thomas Smith, the tribes involved in the ambush would be the Keruscans, Brucians, Catos, Marsos and Sicambrios. While Wells gives a range of 17 000 to 100 000 adult men available to these tribes, 18 000 being the most likely number according to his demographic estimates, based on calculations of the number of villages of each tribe involved and how many inhabitants they would have, especially the number of adult men and discounting those loyal to pre-Roman factions. Wells says that about 5000 would be on the embankment, another 5000 behind, in the forest, as a reserve, 7000 on the eastern slope of the hill ready to attack the Roman center and rear, and 1000 on the road leading to the swamp located to the north. Based on the studies of Murdoch, Delbrück and Wells, Esteban believes there must have been between 25 000 and 35 000 warriors, although recognizing that these are estimates.

Delbrück believed that the Germanic tribes numbered six to eight thousand warriors on average, some more and some less, so that some 20,000 to 30,000 warriors must have fought at Teutoburg. Michael McNally believes that there were 8,000 Bruttians, 8,000 Keruscans and 5,000 Angrivarians.

The American military historian James L. Venckus says that Arminius had only 15,000 to 20,000 warriors, since all these tribes had important factions loyal to Varus. This led the Germanic warlord to try to make the most of each of his followers, making them carry numerous javelins and make extensive preparations for the ambush, specifically the construction of the great palisade.

Townsend lowers the figure to 15,000 Germans, although only a third took part in the first attack; most of them armed with javelins, axes, spears and clubs, especially the last two, and protected only by a wooden shield. Helmets, chain mail, and possibly swords, were possessed almost exclusively by nobles or professional warriors of the bands. The auxiliary deserters would carry Roman equipment, but the great majority only wooden or wicker shields and perhaps breastplates or helmets. The main weapons were a long spear, 2 to 3 meters, and a short spear with a large iron point called a framea, useful for both close combat and throwing.


Varus probably ordered each legion to leave a cohort and an important part of its auxiliaries in its winter quarters as a garrison, then he would have assembled the army in Castra Vetera and crossed the Rhine towards the Lippe, leaving Asprenas the mission of guarding the Catos and Marcomans, then opponents of the Empire.

He must have spent a week at Aliso, organizing his forces and making preparations. He then proceeded to Oberaden, with his army marching overland and ships carrying supplies up the Lippe. He arrived at Anreppen, where he made final arrangements to enter Barbaricum, the territory not subject to Rome. During the march, garrisons would have been left in the temporary forts and changed those in the permanent ones, until their relief the next spring.

The Germans refused to rebel openly for fear of Roman troops in their territory, and on the Rhine, on the other hand, welcomed Varus with open arms and promised him everything he demanded, encouraging him to go as far as the Weser, in the territory of the Keruscans. The governor entertained himself that summer in administrative and legal tasks, mediating in the conflicts between Germans, who claimed to be very grateful for that. The moment was excellent for the conspirators, the bulk of the imperial army was fighting in Illyria and only a garrison of three isolated legions remained in the interior of Germania.

Varus, believing everything pacified, began to scatter his forces in small forts, chasing bandits and protecting supply caravans. It is possible that this was due to Arminius convincing his Angrivarian and Brucian allies to make small incursions into Keruscan territory. It should be mentioned that most Roman supplies passed through the territory of the former, so they were vulnerable to his attacks, having to divert troops to protect them. Not much is known of the summer campaign of 9, but as autumn arrived the Roman legions began to march to their castra hiberna ("winter quarters"), when news reached him of a supposed minor uprising according to Arminius' reports. The situation occurred two days away and meant only a minor diversion.

Thus, on the morning of September 7, Varus ordered to break camp and form the troops to pay them their stipendium (salary). Those coins would be key two millennia later to find the location of the ambush. From his court he told them they would go to quell a small revolt before returning to the Rhine, promising to plunder the rebellious villages, provoking cheers among the legionaries. Then the march began.

Varus took no precautions because he was in territory considered friendly and put Arminius' Keruscan auxiliaries in the vanguard, then Arminius asked permission to move forward in search of allies, which the governor authorized. Thus, Varus lost at least a quarter of his horsemen, diminishing his ability to scout the terrain. But the Germanic nobleman met his followers at a predetermined point and then they began to stealthily assassinate the small garrisons left by Varus in the region.

Varus and his legionnaires were accompanied by thousands of non-combatants, so their plan was probably to reach the unruly area, set up camp in a safe place, leave the civilians with a garrison there, and conduct a brief punitive campaign.

The column

Based on Flavius Josephus, who relates how a Roman army marched during the great Jewish revolt, it can be estimated that the column advanced in the following order: the auxiliary archers and light infantrymen scouting the territory, a vanguard composed of a corps of legionaries and cavalry, a corps of sappers in charge of clearing the road of obstacles and at the end of the journey they built the camp, the baggage of the high officers with a strong mounted escort, the general and his personal escort or extraordinarii, mules with the Roman artillery and siege weapons, the legates, prefects and tribunes of each cohort with an escort of chosen soldiers, the aquilifer, the eagles of each legion and the musicians, the bulk of the legions with mules and servants carrying their baggage, and, finally, in the rear, a troop of light and heavy mercenary infantry with a large body of cavalry. It probably extended for about three and a half kilometers, Knoke believes that each legion would cover two kilometers, making the total army about eight to ten if the auxiliaries are counted.

The legionaries were accompanied by their concubines, natural children, merchants, slaves, servants and other non-combatants, not to mention thousands of animals and hundreds of wagons, making the column incredibly slow, and Towsend says: "The Roman force looked like an overloaded civilian column with a heavy military escort. Towsend says: "The Roman force looked more like an overloaded civilian column with a strong military escort than an army". According to Stephen, the legionaries must have had about 1200 mules, plus a few hundred to carry the equipment of the auxiliaries. In addition, there would be hundreds of carts and wagons with the impedimenta, artillery, baggage and non-combatants. It should be mentioned that each legion was accompanied by a large number of civilians (free or slaves) in charge of various tasks, from muleteers to cooks. and merchants, especially fur traders, who would have probably bought their products from Germanic hunters and returned to the Rhine to sell them.

The column had to be very long, several kilometers in length, so that no single point had to have a high concentration of legionnaires, many of them more occupied in helping to move baggage than in guarding the forest, a mission of the Germanic archers in the vanguard and flanks. This length also meant that if a point was attacked, it would take a long period of time before officers were informed and reinforcements sent. This allowed the lightly armed and faster Germans to attack them and retreat, causing much damage without needing numerical superiority.

The slow column would advance some 15 to 20 km per day, marching from dawn to noon, at which time the outposts began to build camp while other units guarded the surroundings and others distributed food, water and animal fodder. Each legionary marched with a wooden furca hanging from his shoulders carrying two stakes, digging tools and cooking material; they also carried their weapons (sword, javelin and dagger) and rations for two or three days. The non-combatants settled in the vicinity of the camp, with their access forbidden, except in case of danger, because they were given shelter.

First attacks

Early the next morning, September 8, the Romans set up temporary camp (castra) where they spent the night and continued their march.The guides led Varus through wooded terrain in bad autumn weather.The Romans were to cut down trees and attempt to build roads.These scouts were local Germanic men who knew the terrain and were probably part of the conspiracy, warning their companions of the approaching Roman army.They had possibly been left by Arminius and were men he trusted.The site chosen was Kalkrieser Berg, a hill northwest of the homonymous village and part of the present-day Wiehenge massif.The place chosen was Kalkrieser Berg, a hill northwest of the present-day village of the same name and part of the Wiehenge massif. Possibly they had been left by Arminius and were men he trusted. The site chosen was the Kalkrieser Berg, a hill northwest of the present village of the same name and part of the Wiehengebirge massif. By this time, Arminius had gathered his faithful Keruscans and was on his way to the site, where the Angrivarians were making final preparations.

The Roman column advanced slowly and at length, accompanied by their families and servants, wagons and beasts of burden. This company disorganized the army, made it unable to react immediately and made it impossible to maintain the regulatory distance between units. It was then when an intense rain began accompanied by strong winds that made the terrain a slippery muddy mess and knocked down tree tops, causing much confusion. The legions advanced in a northerly direction following a road that took them around the wooded hill to the west, the terrain was muddy, with woods to the east and a swamp to the north (but out of Varus' sight until they reached the northeast of the hill, where the road made a detour in a southwesterly direction). In that situation, surely the sappers in the vanguard were working hurriedly to clear the road of obstacles, which had become a quagmire from the rain and the mud stirred up by the passage of thousands of sandals and horses' hooves. The latter would have begun to clog the wagons, increasing the gaps between units. To make matters worse, the same storm made mobility difficult for the legionaries, whose shields and armor were very heavy, and with their thunder prevented them from hearing how thousands of Germans were concentrating around them, so they possibly did not even hear their first attacks.

The brutes, located on the hill where they had the advantage, began to throw their shells on the vanguard. In a few minutes the news reached the governor, despite the congested road, and he decided to send reinforcements to the front, but they were surrounded by the barbarians who came down to fight hand to hand. The center and rear also suffered their onslaught and many tried to flee into the swamp, where they drowned. to make a tight formation, Thus, the Germans forced their enemy not to deviate from the road. In addition, each wounded man made the mobility of the army even more difficult.

Studies by the American historian Peter S. Wells, based on archaeological discoveries, indicate that the Germans may well have thrown a javelin every four seconds, so that in the first twenty seconds of the attack 25,000 projectiles fell on their enemies, killing some 5,000 and wounding or leaving 10,000 in agony, leaving only a few thousand to continue the fight, which were eliminated in about an hour of hand-to-hand combat. Instead, Michael McNally thinks it possible that they were not as many throwing weapons as ancient sources say, but swift attacks with knives and clubs. Moving along the forest paths, the Germans could launch fleeting attacks at different points in the column. Venckus believes that Arminius must have given orders to his faithful, who were the scouts of the column, for the legions to arrive at the trap at the ideal time, possibly the early afternoon, an hour or two before the normal time to stop and start building a camp. By then, the legionnaires would be exhausted from a day's march in the woods and under a storm, with their formation laxed by the terrain. These guides would probably have encouraged Varus not to stop, announcing that there would be suitable camping ground a short distance away.

Varus' army managed to make its way to open ground, where it built a camp to shelter from bad weather and enemies. After completion, the governor and his senior officers held a council where they discussed options. Given the circumstances and their forces, they decided to remain on the defensive until Arminius' kerusks arrived, whose knowledge of the terrain would help them defeat the attackers.

Waiting at the camp

The imperial soldiers, in their tents, tried to recover while some guarded the perimeter. Shortly before dawn on September 9, a small group of horsemen left through the porta decumana, the rear entrance to the camp, and retraced the steps followed by the legions the day before in search of Arminius. A while later, another group went out to scout the terrain, locate the enemy, determine their strength, and verify which road was passable. The latter announced that the terrain was a muddy stormy mess, suitable for infantry and cavalry but not for the remaining wagons. The Germanic guides had disappeared, so they could not deviate from the path, all their movements being predictable. Meanwhile, the first group found Arminius but as soon as they dismounted they were arrested by the Keruscans and tortured until they confessed where and how Varus' forces were.

The Keruscan leader sent messengers to his allies, ordering them to continue their attacks and finish the place of the ambush, but also to the Sicambrians and other tribes, encouraging them to massacre the Roman garrisons in their territories. When dusk came, as the horsemen sent in search of Arminius did not return, Varus understood that he had been betrayed, it was impossible that his Germanic auxiliaries, lightly armed and knowledgeable of the terrain had been so unintentionally delayed. Without being able to count on help, the position of his army was even more dangerous.

That night he met again with the higher commanders, deciding to follow the forest trail to the west. It was their only chance. Almost all the wagons and non-essential material was abandoned or burned on the march. What could be packed on the mules. This also meant reducing the length of the column and making it faster. The equipment for the construction of a new camp was distributed among the units, the artillery was abandoned but its crossbows were distributed among the legionaries, probably the pilum were almost exhausted, and weapons were given to the civilian personnel, all knowing that the Germans would not distinguish between civilians and military when attacking.

By the light of the campfires, weapons were sharpened, final checks were made and promises were exchanged between soldiers not to abandon each other. Many were more afraid of falling prisoners and being tortured in the enemy's rituals than of dying in battle. The axles of the wagons that would follow the column were greased and the harness bells were covered with cloth or grass to prevent noise. Finally, the wounded and part of the medics were left behind, they were to be sacrificed so that the rest could move faster and live.

Escape attempt

Shortly before dawn on September 10, without sounding the usual trumpets, the centurions assembled the army at the porta principalis and began to leave following the path to the west. Half of the auxiliaries in the lead, followed by the first legion, the sappers, the second legion and the park guarded by the third legion. The flanks would be protected by the legionary cavalry and in the rear would be the rest of the auxiliaries and the allied cavalry.

The march was slowed by having to move obstacles to improve and enlarge the trail. In the end, only the rearguard and invalids were left in camp, the latter accompanied by some officers who would beg for mercy from their enemies. McNally believes that Vala's horsemen were the last to leave the camp, and even imagines the legate advising the officers not to expect mercy from the barbarians and to prevent his men from being taken alive. The Roman army was much better formed but still suffered heavy casualties from the Germanic attacks, although his auxiliaries were able to launch small counterattacks. Orders were given to abandon the badly wounded and many of them were killed by their comrades so that they would not be captured.

Soon the column began to disorganize and fragment until it split into three semi-autonomous corps, the vanguard tried to open the trail despite the continuous assaults. The vanguard tried to open the path despite the continuous assaults, the main body tried to keep up and the rearguard did its best not to lose the park. Orders could only be transmitted by stopping the troops because of the difficult coordination of their movements, it was very easy for a messenger to get lost in the chaotic forest (something fatal) and the exact location of the governor was unknown.

On the other hand, the Germans, more lightly armed, moved more easily and were joined by numerous peoples who had previously refused to help in the conspiracy, and were thus able to surround the depleted legions. Classical historians argue that the original Germanic force was joined by numerous warriors from other tribes, previously fearful of rebellion, gaining numerical superiority. Among them could have been the Catos, Caucasians, Marsians, Usipetes, Tubantes and possibly Téncteros, Cassowaries, Camavians, Sycambrians and Matiacs. Instead, McNally believes that these reinforcements were Arminius and his Keruscans, who finally reached the camp and massacred the wounded. Their situation was unbeatable. The warlord could decide when to attack the weakened Roman column, while his allies bore most of the casualties. Thus, after the success he would be left as the undisputed leader of the rebels to face Rome and the Marcomans.

In the afternoon, turning off to the northwest, the vanguard managed to break through The legionaries formed up as they were accustomed to and the Germans withdrew. The governor sent scouts to look for an easy-to-defend site with natural drainage and connected to the trails (the Felsenfeld hill near the village of Schwagstorf, east of Kalkriese), and once chosen, ordered to begin forming a camp with the remaining wagons and well-built palisades. While the legionnaires worked, the cavalry guarded the approaches.Varo met in his tent with the surviving senior officers, there was a count of casualties, and their situation and possibilities were analyzed.The most direct route, to the west, required returning to the woods, where the narrow terrain would prevent them from fighting properly.The other two options were south, through mountains but where the terrain was open and could lead to the Lippe valley or the vicinity of Aliso, and north, where the terrain was equally open but away from the bases. After sending out scouts the first two options were discarded.

Final massacre

On September 11, at dawn, the Germans probably began to block the escape routes to the north and south, forcing the survivors to continue west. They could not remain in camp either. However, from their perspective they had a chance, for if they got through this last obstacle they would reach their forts and the enemy must have been just as exhausted as they were. It was then that a storm of rain and winds blew up, preventing them from advancing or standing safely or using their bows, javelins and shields. It is possible that because of the casualties and because there would be almost no park left, the Roman army was grouped into two ad hoc "battle groups". These would have left the camp before dawn to try to advance as much as possible before being detected, probably about 4000 survivors would be in the first body. The forest was so dense that it was ordered not to clear the path of obstacles and continue as they could, because the column could not stop for any reason. Although there may have been some pause for the stragglers to catch up and reorganize, what is certain is that both groups remained in constant communication.

At that point, the first corps found that the forest was beginning to dissolve, but at that point, the path forked into two routes: the first, along the slopes of a ridge that connected with the Weser; the second went directly to the west. Shortly after, the clearing ended and the forest was reborn. The Romans saw the two roads and sighted on the first one the slopes of the hills a little lower, and it was then that they understood that the Germans had built a palisade concealed among the trees. The other route was impassable, since the rains had flooded it, so it only remained to force the passage through the bottleneck formed by the palisade, which peremptorily had to be assaulted.

Without supporting artillery, the legionnaires formed four parallel columns, each equivalent to a cohort, attacking in testudo, the central columns would attempt a frontal assault while the lateral ones would try to flank the position and some comrades would throw stones and javelins on the defenders. The central columns would attempt a frontal assault while the lateral ones would try to flank the position and some comrades would throw stones and javelins on the defenders. The legionaries of the first ranks, with the shields that defended their heads, would serve as a ramp for the later ranks to assault the palisade with hoes and shovels, with the intention of opening a breach through which to enter.

In the meantime, the second Roman corps was attacked by the Keruscan and Germanic cavalry when it was already far from the camp, submerged in the forest of the Ostercappeln hills and without the possibility of being helped by their comrades in vanguard. Then, Varus and all his high officers, many of them already wounded, fearing a horrible death in case of being captured, proceeded to commit suicide with their swords, following the example of Varus' father and grandfather, who defeated in the civil wars of the late Roman Republic, did the same. On the other hand, McNally believes that the governor committed suicide in the tent on the previous night, after learning that Vala and his cavalry were annihilated. According to Dion Cassius, upon realizing this, the imperial soldiers also took their own lives or simply allowed themselves to be killed. Thus the Germans killed many men and horses with little resistance.

Classical sources say that the cavalry leader, Vala, abandoned the infantry, giving it up for lost, and tried to reach the Rhine but he and his men were overtaken before and massacred. McNally, on the other hand, believes that Varus, on the 10th, asked Vala to try to reach the Frisians for help or the Rhine and ask Asprenas to send one of his legions to save them. The governor may well have known that, if they held out long enough while building camps after each day's march, they could hold out until reinforcements arrived. But as counterpoints, it could also not be known which tribes were loyal and which were not and where his nephew stood. They probably tried to flee by the more open northern route leading to the Frisians, but their men and mounts were too tired to save themselves.

There is no clarity about the final events. Veleius Paterculus says that the legionaries were left under the command of two surviving legates, Lucius Aegius and one Cejonius. The former negotiated a capitulation but he and his followers were tortured and executed, while the latter died defending a camp. McNally believes that they were probably praefecti castrorum of legions XVII and XVIII, respectively. It is likely that Egio was left in command of the first group of survivors and Cejonius of the second.

Cejonio's group must have been forced to return to the camp. Probably the last few hundred survivors, most of them wounded, tried to take cover or negotiate but were finally exterminated. Meanwhile, Egio's corps was still in its desperate assault on the enemy stockade, however, many of his men were busy serving as a ramp for those who were fighting. While the Germans could easily replace their casualties, each fallen legionary was a drain on the attack. It was then that some survivors of Cejonius' group began to arrive, alerting them to the fate of their comrades, and Egio realized that the palisade was a diversion to allow the slaughter of the second corps. He ordered to cease the assault and to break through the bottleneck at full speed under a hail of rocks, javelins and other projectiles from the palisade. They were decimated and soon came under further attack on the trail, as Arminius' kerusks had possibly already joined their allies. Finally, the column fragmented into small detachments that were surrounded and massacred.

Small groups slipped through the region and were hunted in the following days. Some managed to reach Castra Vetera after creeping through the forests.


The captured officials had their eyes gouged out, their hands and tongues cut off and their mouths sewn shut, and the barbarians mocked them, saying: "At last, you viper, you have stopped hissing. The barbarians taunted them by saying: "At last, you viper, you have stopped whistling". The tribunes and centurions were sacrificed on altars built in the forest. Based on archaeological finds at the site: as of 2003, 17,000 skeletons had been unearthed, of which some 16,000 were legionaries or auxiliaries according to the equipment they were wearing. On the number of dead, British historian Adrian Goldsworthy believes that any estimate must be between 15,000 and 20,000 dead Romans and auxiliaries. There is no data on German casualties, although Wells believes there must have been a few hundred.

Roman sources tend to put the whole weight of the disaster on Varus, accusing him of negligence, apart from the skill of the enemy and the difficulty of the terrain. The governor ended up becoming the scapegoat for the defeat, in fact, in the Roman chronicles the defeat is called Clades Variana, "disaster of Varus", following the custom of attributing the blame to a single character. However, some sources say that he was a capable soldier and politician, not the corrupt and incompetent that is usually held. Also responsible is the emperor himself and his desire to expand the frontiers at any cost.

Modern historians are very critical of Paterculus, the chronicler who most harshly attacks the figure of Varus. They argue that this historian sought to justify the actions of his friend Lucius Elius Sejanus, the tyrannical head of the Praetorian Guard who ran Rome at the end of the reign of Tiberius and who in the year 26 banished Claudia Pulcra, widow of the late governor, on dubious charges of treason. The following year it also eliminated Varus' son, of the same name, under similar circumstances.

The body of Varus was disinterred, because before the end of the battle he was buried, burned and decapitated. His head was sent to Marbod, who sent it to Augustus, receiving a burial worthy of his cradle. It is not known if it was a gesture of Arminius to frighten or gain the support of the Marcomans.

It was the greatest Roman defeat since Carras.

Roman reaction

When the news reached him, five days after the end of the war in Illyria, the emperor Augustus tore his clothes and feared that the Germans would invade Gaul and even Italy, so he decided to order the forced mobilization (not having enough volunteers) of citizens. He had some deserters and reluctant ones killed, sending the recruits with Tiberius on the frontiers. For several months he did not cut his beard or his hair and sometimes hit his head on the walls shouting: "Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions! He also had his Germanic bodyguards disarmed and expelled from the capital.

Augustus calmed down once it became clear that the barbarians would not cross the Rhine, and news came that some soldiers survived, but celebrations were banned. However, celebrations were forbidden. The disaster was attributed to divine punishment because of the following signs: the temple of Mars was struck by lightning, a swarm of locusts flew over Rome but was eaten by swallows, three columns of fire were seen over the Alps, in many places the sky was seen to burn, comets were seen over the Roman camps, bees invaded the rural altars, etc. For the rest of his days, Augustus commemorated the anniversary of the disaster by wearing mourning clothes.

When he returned from the Illyrian campaign, Tiberius did not celebrate a triumph because of the mourning in the city after the disaster, although he still entered with a victory purple.

Tiberio's answer

The Empire saw its frontier retreat to the Rhine. All the Germanic peoples formerly loyal to Rome revolted and seized all the Roman fortresses east of that river except one, which withstood the numerous attacks because of its large number of archers. It was the fort of Aliso, whose defenders were led by the prefect Lucius Cedicius. The garrison, composed probably of two cohorts and one or two auxiliary units, made numerous sorties to weaken the barbarians. Shortly thereafter news arrived that the Empire had strengthened its garrisons on the frontier and Tiberius was approaching with a large army, and so they abandoned the siege. However, help did not arrive and supplies eventually ran out.

It so happened that Tiberius limited himself to prevent the enemy from crossing the Rhine, contenting himself to guard it, calm Gaul and distribute his reinforcements among the garrisons. Apparently following the wishes of Augustus. Meanwhile, Asprenate had dedicated himself with his army to calm Gaul and was the first to reinforce the border of Germania Inferior with his legions. He arrived at Castra Velera, a key point where there was a large bridge that required a strong garrison.

The garrison decided to escape at night, managing to elude the first two enemy positions, but then the noise of the women and children accompanying them alerted the barbarians, who attacked them. All the Romans would have perished if the Germans had not been distracted in dividing the booty. The survivors managed to escape and Asprenate, aware of what had happened, sent them help. The Germans took some prisoners, whose relatives managed to free them after payment.

A year after the disaster, Tiberius decided to cross the Rhine to punish the barbarians, carefully planning the action and reducing the baggage to a minimum.Every night he camped with great vigilance and with lookouts alert to any surprise.He imposed strict discipline on his army and fought only when he felt sure of victory, achieving several minor victories, although he was almost killed by a brute, who infiltrated among his servants but was detected by his nervousness and tortured into confessing.Accompanied by Germanicus, he was unable to win any major battle or subdue any tribe. Accompanied by Germanicus, he was unable to win any major battle or subdue any tribe.To avoid further disaster they did not stray far from the Rhine and remained in enemy territory until autumn.Tiberius confined himself to burning villages and crops before returning to winter quarters.These campaigns were concentrated in Marsian and Brutus territory and together with the Marcomans' alliance with Rome, prevented the Germanic invasion of Gaul.

In the following season Tiberius resumed his punitive campaigns using land and naval forces, but since Gaul was secured and conflicts had broken out among the Germans, he decided to cease. Thus, after two years of campaigns he returned to Rome, where he celebrated the long-delayed triumph.

After Augustus died, in 14, the biological son of Drusus and adoptive son of Tiberius, Julius Caesar Germanicus, crossed the Rhine in a punitive campaign against the Germans followed by eight legions, about 50,000 men. He managed to find the site of the disaster and bury his fallen comrades a year later, recovered two of the eagles that he deposited in the temple of Jupiter but failed to capture and kill Arminius, although he defeated him at Idistaviso. These campaigns restored the military prestige of the Empire, although the numbers of the annihilated legions were never used again. This was probably because, since from the end of the Republic the fate of the legions was associated with the abilities of their commander, the reconstruction of these units would be a permanent reminder that Augustus had failed in his duty as head of state and commander of the army, so it was considered best to remove them from the imperial rolls.

Germania after the battle

Regarding the historical significance of the ambush, the debate goes back to antiquity. The chronicler Florus said: "The result of this disaster was that the Empire, which had not stopped on the banks of the ocean, would stop on the banks of the Rhine River". This position of considering a decisive event in history has been followed by later historians. For example, according to McNally, the dream of conquering Germania was abandoned, the costs were too high and the gains too few, a system of palisades, watchtowers and alternating legionary camps called limes was established, from which events on the other side of the frontier were monitored and occasional raids were made. For the first time in their long history, the Romans were adopting a defensive mentality. There is also the interpretation of Wells. For him, a political frontier was formed that would last four centuries and a division between Latin and Germanic cultures that still persists. If the Romans had conquered Germania, it is likely that neither English nor German would have existed and Romance languages would have been much more widespread, the Reformation, the Thirty Years' War or the long conflict between German and French would never have happened. On the other hand, others, such as the German professor Werner Eck, believe that the defeat did not stop the offensive strategy in the north, even during the last years of Augustus' reign.

Since Tacitus Arminius has been described as "the liberator of Germania". However, there are challenges to this position. To begin with, Dion Cassius already complained about the lack of sources to study the Roman objectives in the war, and the German historian Jürgen Deininger postulated four possible reasons for the campaigns: The first is that they only sought to protect Gaul by means of military deterrence, demonstrations of power and creating large bridgeheads east of the Rhine (suzerainty). After Varus' death, the objective was limited to regaining those bridgeheads. The second, that the objective arose during the campaigns and became the creation of a province between the Rhine and the Elbe. On the other hand, the third postulates that from the beginning the intention was to create a new province between the two rivers. Finally, the fourth theory states that the ideal of a universal empire impelled the Romans to conquer even further east than the Elbe, seeking to take their dominions as far as the Black Sea or beyond. It should also be noted that later emperors sought to expand into Germania and create new provinces, such as Marcus Aurelius with Marcomania and Sarmatia during the Marcoman Wars, or to make deep inroads, such as Maximinus the Thracian against the Alamanni (Harzhorn). From this point of view, the battle was important, though not as important as has sometimes been pointed out. Militarily speaking: "The mighty Roman Empire was more embarrassed than crippled".

Germanicus, nephew of the new emperor Tiberius, carried out some campaigns of punishment and arrived at the Teutobergiensis Saltus, "the forest of Teutoburg", gave a worthy burial to the dead, rescued those who had been enslaved and recovered two lost eagles of the legions. As for the political distribution of the region there were no great losses, the Roman royal dominion only included what today are the Low Countries and the coast of Low Saxony, territories that would be recovered and lost until the definitive fall of the limes. With respect to the nominal dominion, it would depend on the destiny of each tribe, in the case of the Keruscans, this tribe would disappear after being defeated by their old allies the Catos; others like the Sicambrians would give origin to the Franks, who would become successors of the Romans with Charlemagne.

It has been speculated that Varus was able to entrench himself in a strong position after the first attack and resist with his heavy infantry and archers the charges of the ambushers. Sooner or later, even the lightly armed Germans would have to retreat in the rain. In a defensive battle, like those of Gaius Marius against the Cimbrians and Teutons, the best armament and discipline of the legions would defeat warriors whose forte was single combat and break the enemy line in a fearsome first charge. Then Varus would have sacked the villages, burned the food reserves and forced the Germans to retreat into the forests. By the following year the alliance would be in tatters and Augustus would have realized that he needed a larger garrison in the area. However, Roman rule may have disappeared anyway with the mutiny of the troops in 14 or by the civil war of 69, which would undoubtedly have ungarrisoned the province, provoking rebellions, probably supported by the tribes east of the Elbe.

Duration of the battle

Criticism has recently arisen of the traditional idea that the battle lasted several days. Based on Wells, Venckus believes that it lasted only one afternoon, that the legions were unable to organize a defense and were slaughtered in that time.

However, he acknowledges that his view is in the minority. For example, Murdoch believes, following the chronicle of Dion Cassius, that the battle lasted four days and that the Romans built camp on each day to defend themselves in their retreat to Castra Vetera. However, no Roman camp has been found near the area of the battle, contradicting the account of chroniclers, such as Tacitus, who said that Germanicus years later came across the remains of Roman camps built during the march; in addition to the Germanic palisades and other key sites. Venckus also notes that after a daily march of 30 km, the Romans always built a camp at dusk to spend the night in safety. This process took between three and five hours under normal circumstances, but in this case they had to do it in a swampy forest, with fierce storms, under a rain of shells and rejecting continuous charges of the enemy, which made the process even slower. Moreover, they had to march in defensive order until they found a suitable terrain for construction, and all in an area they did not know.

The chronicles relate that the Germanic warriors preferred to loot a camp rather than pursue the defeated enemy, as happened at the battle of the Long Bridges, when they engaged in looting the wagons and allowed the legionaries to reorganize in a defensive position and survive. Therefore, Venckus believes it is unlikely that the barbarians continued to attack for several days. Finally, the notion of a carefully planned ambush by Arminius and his followers fits better with the scenario posed by Venckus. The Keruscan leader chose the ideal terrain and timed his attack with the moment of greatest weakness of the legions.

Myth of German nationalism

In the context of the German nationalist upsurge of the second half of the 19th century, propagandists turned Arminius and Varus into symbols of an eternal opposition between the Germanic "noble savages" and their Latin enemies, evoking the rivalry between the German Empire and France that was affirmed after the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. In 1875 a 17 m statue of Arminius, whose sword points towards France, was built in Grotenburg, the work of E. von Bandel, on a pedestal of 30 m, popularly known by the name of Hermann, the German version of Armin or Arminius (being a Latin name), invented by Martin Luther for the character and popularly known by the name of Hermann, the German version of Armin or Arminius (being a Latin name). von Bandel, on a pedestal of 30 m, popularly known by the name of Hermann, German version of Armin or Arminius (being a Latin name), invented by Martin Luther for the character and frequently used by German nationalists until the mid-twentieth century. After the fall of Nazism, the figure of Arminius, widely used by that ideology, suffered some ostracism and today is little known by the Germans.


Film and television

The exact site of the battle was unknown for a long time, a large number of possible locations having been proposed. The German historian Mommsen placed the battle near the sources of the Hunte, north of Osnabrück and away from the hills; but most scholars preferred some site in the central part of the forested Teutoburg mountain range, 110 km long and about 10 km wide.

Until 1987 when a British amateur archaeologist, Anthony Clunn, found 162 Roman coins known as denarii and three lead balls of the type used in Roman army slings, and subsequent investigation by professional archaeologists led by Wolfgang Schlüter led to convincing proof that the battle took place north of Kalkriese Hill, between the villages of Engter and Venne, on the northern edge of the Teutoburger Wald (Teutoburger Wald), 15.5 km north-northwest of the modern city of Osnabrück, and 180 km northeast of Cologne, Germany. The site is one of the few places where archaeologists have discovered the site of an open battle. These excavations and the finds made have made a decisive contribution to the understanding of what happened in the ambush. As of 2010, 1500 coins and 5000 fragments of Roman military equipment had been found in an area of 30 km². Animal remains, especially mules, equine harnesses and a few pieces of wagons have also been found.

A museum has been built at the site of the ambush, which houses many of the discoveries made during the excavations, as well as representations of the battle and dioramas.


References should indicate books with Roman numerals and chapters and chapters and chapters and chapters and chapters and chapters and chapters and chapters and chapters and chapters and chapters and chapters.


  1. Battle of the Teutoburg Forest
  2. Batalla del bosque de Teutoburgo
  3. Mustafa, 2011: 5
  4. a b c d e f g h Goldsworthy, 2007: 286
  5. a b c d e f McNally, 2007: 23
  6. Neuere Zusammenfassungen der Forschung bei Jürgen Deininger: Germaniam pacare. Zur neueren Diskussion über die Strategie des Augustus gegenüber Germanien. In: Chiron. Bd. 30, 2000, S. 749–773. Klaus-Peter Johne: Die Römer an der Elbe. Das Stromgebiet der Elbe im geographischen Weltbild und im politischen Bewusstsein der griechisch-römischen Antike. Berlin 2006.
  7. Peter Kehne: Augustus und ‚seine‘ spolia opima: Hoffnungen auf den Triumph des Nero Claudius Drusus? In: Theodora Hantos, Gustav Adolf Lehmann (Hrsg.): Althistorisches Kolloquium aus Anlaß des 70. Geburtstages von Jochen Bleicken. Stuttgart 1998, S. 187–211; Peter Kehne: Limitierte Offensiven: Drusus, Tiberius und die Germanienpolitik im Dienste des augusteischen Prinzipats. In: Jörg Spielvogel (Hrsg.): Res Publica Reperta. Zur Verfassung und Gesellschaft der römischen Republik und des frühen Prinzipats. Festschrift für Jochen Bleicken zum 75. Geburtstag. Stuttgart 2002, S. 298–321. Reinhard Wolters: Die Schlacht im Teutoburger Wald Varus, Arminius und das römische Germanien. In: Ernst Baltrusch, Morten Hegewisch, Michael Meyer, Uwe Puschner und Christian Wendt (Hrsg.): 2000 Jahre Varusschlacht. Geschichte – Archäologie – Legenden. Berlin u. a. 2012, S. 3–21, hier: S. 8.
  8. Reinhard Wolters: Varusschlachten – oder: Neues zur Örtlichkeit der Varusschlacht. In: Die Kunde. Zeitschrift für Ur- und Frühgeschichte. NF 44, 1993, S. 167–183, hier: S. 169.
  9. a b c Goldsworthy, A., 2007. In the Name of Rome. The Men Who Won the Roman Empire. Phoenix imprint of Orion Books Ltd., London. ISBN 978-0753817896, 480 pp. (p. 276-277)
  10. M.M. Winkler (2016): Arminius the Liberator. Myth and ideology, Oxford University Press, p. 2, n. 4
  11. Selon Dion Cassius, Histoire romaine, Livre LIV, 33, les deux castra sont fondées par Drusus en 11 av. J.-C.

Please Disable Ddblocker

We are sorry, but it looks like you have an dblocker enabled.

Our only way to maintain this website is by serving a minimum ammount of ads

Please disable your adblocker in order to continue.

Dafato needs your help!

Dafato is a non-profit website that aims to record and present historical events without bias.

The continuous and uninterrupted operation of the site relies on donations from generous readers like you.

Your donation, no matter the size will help to continue providing articles to readers like you.

Will you consider making a donation today?