While this blog has already talked about a lot of Roman victories, today’s focus is on one hideous encounter in the forests of Germany that is occasionally marked as a decisive turning point in the history of Europe. This was the Clades Variana, the Varan Disaster, The Battle of Teutoburg Forest, or as I prefer to call it, Herman the German Saves the English Language.
A couple of millennia ago, as soon as both Mark Antony and Cleopatra had committed suicide, Caesar Augustus found himself in the position of having twice the army that he needed. He eliminated some legions, and made the remaining ones much smaller. The remaining streamlined legions were sent to guard the border regions. Since he had used the army to seize control, he knew the dangers of having too large a military force too close to home.
The Augustan reforms created a powerful professional standing army of volunteers that was perhaps 350,000 men strong. For the most part, this force was dispersed around the empire’s periphery, guarding the frontiers.
The Augustan army was kept busy in campaigning. The Alps, Spain, the East, the northern Balkans, and Germany were all foci of military activity under Augustus. Wars of conquest in these regions kept the soldiers busy and far, far away from Rome, and also earned Augustus the glory of military victories that had actually been won by his generals, who were far from Rome and couldn't contest his taking the credit for their wins. If these same generals lost—well, it couldn’t possibly be the fault of Augustus, since he was far away in Rome, after all.
To the Roman mind, the Germans were the quintessential barbarians, who represented everything that civilization was not: they practiced virtually no agriculture, they were intensely—almost anarchically—warlike, and they were wholly lacking in any form of discipline. In addition, they dressed in animal skins, they did not have cities or orderly government, and their villages were small and insignificant. They were fiercely independent and they spent a lot of time drunk, arguing, and fighting each other. They were true savages.
Today, we know the Roman view of the Germans was wrong: Of course they had agriculture and they had small villages based on families, with populations varying between 40 and 200 souls. While they did not have a central form of government, the leaders of different villages could cooperate to achieve common goals. (Like, for example, killing Romans.)
The Germans, by virtue of their fierce independence and warrior ethos, represented a serious threat to the security of the Roman territory in Western Europe, and they already had a long history of carrying out raids into present day France. Decentralized political life made a lasting diplomatic settlement with all of them almost impossible, and so, Augustus was determined to conquer them. (If you can’t talk to them, kill them.)
History no longer records exactly what Augustus wanted to do after he had invaded Germany, but the thinking is that he either wanted a natural frontier along the Danube River, or (being a Roman) perhaps, he just wanted to keep moving his back fence until somebody stopped him. Personally, I think the latter reason is more likely. Romans were fierce believers in The Toddler’s Laws of Ownership:
1. What’s mine is mine.
2. If I see it, it’s mine.
3. If it’s yours and I like it, it’s mine.
4. If you want it, it’s mine.
So, the Roman Army invaded the dense forests of Germany and successfully subdued the Germanic people—for a while. In A.D. 6, Augustus appointed Publius Quinctilius Varus, as his representative in Germany. Varus was perfectly qualified, since he had married the grandniece of Augustus. (Marrying the right person has always been an excellent method of proving one’s military genius.)
Actually, Varus wasn’t all bad: he had lots of experience, and on examination, his record shows that he was probably competent, but not very imaginative. He was also absolutely heartless in his treatment of the Germans, who, according to one source, he treated as “people only in limbs and voice.”
It was not long before Custer—I mean Varus—began to waste time holding hearings and establishing laws, and, to quote a contemporary, “came to see himself as a city praetor administering justice in the forum and not a general in command of an army in the heart of Germany.” Varus did make one serious mistake: he placed too much trust in a German tribal leader named Arminius.
Arminius was a prince of a powerful German tribe, who had served in the Roman army as an auxiliary commander. The Romans had long brought local leaders to their side like this in the expectation that by securing their loyalties they could indirectly control their dependent populations. This was the Roman equivalent of the US Cavalry's hiring Indian Scouts after the American Civil War.
Arminius, in his mid-20s, was convinced that Rome had to be stopped and began planning an ambush. At the same time he wormed himself into Varus’ good graces. He knew the language and how to relate to men of status, like Varus. We are told that the two men dined together frequently. Arminius apparently added personal charm to his native intelligence. He used that intelligence to orchestrate the single worst defeat inflicted by native troops on a professional and disciplined army in the annals of warfare.
Iron Age German warfare was normally small-scale and low-intensity, and was conducted by small bands of a few dozen warriors under strong leaders. Roman commanders in Germany had found it very difficult to bring the tribesmen to a pitched battle (the preferred Roman technique of settling matters decisively). Instead, they found that the small and simple Germanic communities dissolved before their advance, while the Germans launched ambushes and surprise attacks against their armies who were on the march. (Damn, do you think the Apache are actually the lost tribe of Germany?)
If they had to, the Germans could indeed gather a large force together for a short time. Armed with longswords, heavy wooden shields, javelins, axes, and short stabbing spears, their attacks were terrifying. But the highly disciplined Roman Army knew how to fight, and if allowed to fight their preferred method, could handle the German forces.
Now that is the key, right there. The Romans expected to be able to fight the same old tried and true method they had used to conquer the world, and Arminius was going to change the rules. (For a second there, I stopped thinking about Custer and started thinking about General Giap and Viet Nam...But, only for a second.)
In September, A.D. 9, Varus, at the head of three legions, six cohorts of auxiliaries, and six squadrons of cavalry—about 20.000 men in all—was heading back to his winter quarters along the Rhine and the Lippe Rivers. Arminius, meanwhile, had raised a native army of substantial size. (Historians say things like that when we don’t have a clue. The army was big. Huge. Maybe as big as Varus’ army. Maybe not. But, HUGE.)
News was brought to Varus that a German tribe was in rebellion. Believing the natives were scattered, Varus took his army on a several days' march (but without taking the necessary precautions, such as scouting out the locals). Arminius and most of the other Germans suddenly decided they had pressing engagements back home and quietly left the Roman army, as it began marching through the dark forest. Then, suddenly, flying monkeys swooped—no, wrong story! (But, at this point you do have to wonder if Varus had ever watched television.)
The forest was so dense that the Romans had to cut down trees to make a path wide enough for their wagons, which were already struggling because of a fierce rain storm. Suddenly, thousands of warriors begin attacking on all sides from the cover of trees. The Romans, who were tied down with women, children, carts and horses, couldn’t spread out in their usual battle formations. And the Roman infantry, fighting with swords, found no one close enough to fight as the Germans hurled spears from behind trees. Advancing across muddy ground was almost impossible, and the rain made the wet strings on the Roman bows useless.
The forest was too dense for the Romans to fight back, so they tried to form a defensive camp even though there was a pouring rain and the spears were still falling. The soldiers burned their wagons, lightening their loads as much as possible in order to travel faster, but there was no escape and the Germans continued the attack the following day.
The second day was a replay of the first. It was impossible for the Romans to counterattack an enemy they could not see, an enemy that continued to rain missiles down on the ambushed Romans.
By the third day of these terrifying assaults, Roman discipline broke as frightened units descended into chaos, bumping into each other in the darkened woods. As news of the running battle spread among the Germanic tribes, more and more warriors showed up to do battle.
Some Roman officers died in battle, some died as they attempted to flee the battle, and a few committed suicide as the remaining troops were mercilessly slaughtered. Three whole legions, XVII, XVIII and XIX, the heart of the Roman force in Germany, were annihilated, and two of their eagles captured. The third eagle, by the way, was hidden in a bog by its faithful standard-bearer. The Roman captives were brutally tortured to death, sacrificed to woodland gods, or kept as slaves. Varus’ body was found, mutilated, and with his head cut off; it was sent to a rebel king in Bohemia, who then thoughtfully forwarded it to Augustus, who had it buried in the Varan family tomb.
Rome promptly left Germany, and pulled its forces back across the Rhine. At Rome itself, there was panic, as ghosts of barbarian incursions past haunted the Roman imagination. The numbers and the names of the three legions lost by Varus were permanently retired.
An unkempt Augustus is reported to have walked the palace corridors at night, tearing his clothes and crying out in anguish: “Quinctilius Varus—give me back my legions!”
The Rhine River became the northern border of the Roman Empire and stayed that way for the next four centuries. The Romans never again attempted to subdue the Germans permanently. That ambition perished in the rain, mud, and blood of the Teutoburg Forest in September of A.D. 9, along with the 20,000 soldiers.
Archaeologists have pinpointed one of the sites of this running battle near present day Kalkriese. Thousands of artifacts have been found, ranging from weapons, to pieces of armor, and ceremonial face masks. My own favorite find at Kalkriese however, is an intact skeleton of a mule with a cowbell that had been stuffed with grass to silence it. Apparently, the Romans at some point in that three day battle that stretched for miles were trying to quietly move through the forest. They obviously didn’t make it. Whoever was leading that mule was just one of the 20,000 casualties the Romans lost in the battle.
The German resistance was successful, though not personally for Arminius. Six years later, the Romans captured his pregnant wife and took her back to Italy. Both she and her son spent the rest of their lives as Roman slaves. Arminius was recognized as a hero by the Germanic tribes for a while, then they began to fear he was trying to become a king, so they killed him just a dozen years after his great victory.
If Arminius’ life was short and not particularly happy, his afterlife has been glorious. Renamed “Herman” by Martin Luther—a bogus Germanicizing of the word Arminius—he has been a hero of the German people from the time of the Renaissance. On a hilltop near the present-day town of Detmold stands a colossal copper statue of him, replete with winged helmet and raised sword, surveying the native forests he so ably defended. Completed in 1875 this, the Hermandenkmal, Herman monument, remains today the single most popular domestic tourist attraction in Germany.
Great historical weight has been placed on the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. In the view of some, it was one of the most important battles in European history. Had the Romans conquered the Germans, goes this line of thinking, the free spirit of the tribes would have been broken, the Germans incorporated into the sphere of the Romance world, Christianized, and given Roman law and government. The unconquered German tribes would not have destroyed the Roman Empire in the West in the 5th century, and that Empire might have continued longer; who knows, perhaps even down to the present. If so, there would have been no Anglo-Saxon England, no English language, no Frankish France, and no medieval world. All of history would be altered.
Perhaps the worst possible outcome, this blog would have been written in French. With a Texas accent.