The other night I watched a documentary called The Lost Legions Of Varus. It was about how the eastward expansion of the Roman Empire across the lands we call Germany was checked by a tactically imaginative ambush by local tribes coordinated by a Romanified Cherusci nobleman called Arminius in 9CE.
The programme posits the idea that this single event laid the foundations for the division of much of Europe into two camps – those of the Romance nations and those of the Germanic – and all that entailed for the next two millennia. Whilst this is something of a sweeping assertion, it’s still a fascinating story. The battle saw the Romans lose three whole legions, and subsequently they withdrew to a boundary west of the Rhine and south of the Danube.
Varus’s forces included three legions (Legio XVII, Legio XVIII, and Legio XIX), six cohorts of auxiliary troops (non-Roman allies) and three squadrons of cavalry (alae), most of which lacked combat experience with Germanic fighters under local conditions. The Roman forces were not marching in combat formation, and were interspersed with large numbers of camp-followers. As they entered the forest (probably just northeast of Osnabrück [show location on an interactive map] 52°24′38″N 8°07′46″E / 52.41056, 8.12944), they found the track narrow and muddy; according to Dio Cassius a violent storm had also arisen. He also writes that Varus neglected to send out advance reconnaissance parties.
The line of march was now stretched out perilously long — estimates are that it surpassed 15 km (9 miles), and was perhaps as long as 20 km (12 miles). It was then suddenly attacked by Germanic warriors. Arminius knew Roman tactics very well and could direct his troops to counter them effectively, using locally superior numbers against the spread-out Roman legions. The Romans managed to set up a fortified night camp, and the next morning broke out into the open country north of the Wiehen mountains, near the modern town of Osterkappeln. The break-out cost them heavy losses, as did a further attempt to escape by marching through another forested area, with the torrential rains continuing, preventing them from using their bows, and rendering them virtually defenseless, as their shields too became waterlogged.
They then undertook a night march to escape, but marched straight into another trap that Arminius had set, at the foot of Kalkriese Hill (near Osnabrück). There, the sandy, open strip on which the Romans could march easily was constricted by the hill, so that there was a gap of only about 100 m between the woods and the swampland at the edge of the Great Bog. Moreover, the road was blocked by a trench, and, towards the forest, an earthen wall had been built along the roadside, permitting the Germanic tribesmen to attack the Romans from cover. The Romans made a desperate attempt to storm the wall, but failed, and the highest-ranking officer next to Varus, Numonius Vala, abandoned the troops by riding off with the cavalry; however, he too was overtaken by the Germanic cavalry and killed, according to Velleius Paterculus. The Germanic warriors then stormed the field and slaughtered the disintegrating Roman forces; Varus committed suicide. Velleius reports that one commander, Ceionus, “shamefully” surrendered, while his colleague Eggius “heroically” died leading his doomed troops.
Around 15,000–20,000 Roman soldiers must have died; not only Varus, but also many of his officers are said to have taken their own lives by falling on their swords in the approved manner. Tacitus wrote that many officers were sacrificed by the Germanic forces as part of their indigenous religious ceremonies. However, others were ransomed, and the common soldiers appear to have been enslaved.
As a longtime lover of Asterix, I found it most interesting to hear about these non-Gothic tribes in the German lands. (The Asterix books are set around sixty years prior to the events in the Teutoburg Forest; in reality the Gothic tribes did not play a significant role in history until the third and fourth centuries.) Of course, all this leads on to a perpetual hunt through Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Huns, Vandals, Burgundians, Theodoric, Alaric and all. Frankly (ahem) it all gets rather confusing.