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Battle of the Teutoburg Forest

In the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest (AD 9), an alliance of Germanic tribes led by Arminius (also known in German as Hermann), the son of Segimerus of the Cherusci, ambushed and wiped out a Roman army of three entire Legions.

The battle established the Rhine as the boundary between Romans and Germans in Germania inferior. The Romans never got any further north.


The defeat of Varus

The Roman force was led by Publius Quinctilius Varus, a noble from an old family, who had become the governor of Germania in AD 7. The battle is thus also known as the Varusschlacht in German (battle of Varus). His force was made up of three legions (Legio XVII, Legio XVIII, and Legio XIX), six cohorts and three squadrons of allied cavalry.

His opponent Arminius had lived in Rome as a hostage in his youth, where he had received a military education and had even been given the rank of Equestrian. After his return, he was expected to be an ally of Rome, and behaved accordingly towards Varus. In secret, he forged an alliance of Germanic tribes that had traditionally been enemies (the Cherusci, Marsi, Chatti, and Bructeri), but which he was able to unite due to outrage over Varus' arrogant style of governing the province.

While Varus was on his way from his summer camp to the winter headquarters near the Rhine, he heard reports of a local rebellion, fabricated by Arminius. Varus decided to quell this uprising immediately and take a detour through territory unknown to the Romans. Arminius, who accompanied Varus, most likely directed him deliberately to a route that would faciliate an ambush and then left under some pretext or other, to meet his troops who must have been waiting in the vicinity.

The Roman force appears to have been poorly organised during the march, and as they passed into a forest they found the track narrow and marshy; a violent storm had also arisen. In passing through the forest the Roman forces had lost their structure, and they were ambushed by the Germans repeatedly over two or three days. Arminius knew Roman tactics very well and could direct his troops to counter them effectively, using local superior numbers against the spread-out Roman legions. Finally the remaining Romans stood their ground, and as the rains continued in the ensuing assault they were slaughtered to the last man. Around 20,000 Roman soldiers died; Varus is said to have taken his own life. Upon hearing of the defeat, the emperor Augustus, according to Roman author and historian Suetonius, shouted "Quintili Vare, legiones redde!" ('Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!')

The shock of the slaughter brought an end to Roman attempts to extend their territories eastward from the Rhine across Germany. These attempts had dragged on since around 20 BC with variable success. This had long term historical consequences as it set the boundary between Romance languages and Germanic languages and hence the borders between the future France and Germany near the Rhine.

Due to the actual nature of the battle, the lack of a written German language at the time, and the lack of Roman survivors it has long been realised that contemporary reports are almost all hearsay. For Roman historians to say "Lucius Eggius gave as honorable an example of valor as Ceionius gave of baseness" or "Numonius Vala... [was] guilty of abominable treachery" is unverifiable.

The Detmold memorial

The legacy of the Germanic victory was resurrected in the 19th century as a symbol of German nationalism and pride. In 1875, the Hermannsdenkmal, a statue paid for largely out of private funds, was completed in Detmold to commemorate the battle; similar statues also exist outside of Germany in German-founded communities including one in New Ulm, Minnesota.

In 1847, Josef Viktor von Scheffel wrote a lengthy song, "Als die Römer frech geworden" ("When the Romans Started to Misbehave"), relating the tale of the battle with somewhat gloating humour. Copies of the text are still found on many souvenirs available at the Detmold monument.

Site of the battle

For almost 2,000 years, nobody knew for sure where the battle really took place, and the main source of information about it was the Germania of Gaius Cornelius Tacitus, which located the battle in the saltus Teutoburgiensis. During the 19th century Herrmann-"boom", theories about the true site of the battle abounded, and the followers of a particular popular theory even managed to have the region around their chosen site renamed Teutoburg Forest in popular usage; the monument was erected there.

However, late 20th century research and excavations, among them the discovery of some leaden Roman sling ammunition by British amateur archaeologist Major Tony Clunn, led to the discovery of what is now believed to be the actual site of the battle. It is located at Kalkriese (part of the city Bramsche), at the fringes of the Wiehengebirge hills north of Osnabrück in the state of Lower Saxony. This is some 50 km away from Detmold, south of Osnabrück, where the statue was erected.

While the initial excavations were done by the archaeological team of the Kulturhistorisches Museum Osnabrück under the direction of Prof. Wolfgang Schlüter, after the dimensions of the project became apparent, a new foundation was created to organize future excavations, erect and run a new museum on the site, and centralise publicity work and documentation.


  • Peter S. Wells: The Battle That Stopped Rome. Emperor Augustus, Arminius, and the slaughter of the legions in the Teutoburg Forest. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY 2003, ISBN 0-393-02028-2 (strong on archaeology, but extremely weak on the ancient sources)

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Last updated: 10-08-2005 14:54:54
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