On this day September 9, A.D. 9
Arminius’ alliance of six Germanic tribes ambushed and annihilated three Roman legions led by Publius Quinctilius Varus in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.
The Roman force was led by Publius Quinctilius Varus, a noble from an old family and related to the Imperial family, an experienced administrative official who was assigned to establish the new province of Germania in 7 AD.
Varus’ 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 a trusted advisor to Varus. In secret, he forged an alliance of Germanic tribes that had traditionally been enemies (the Cherusci, Marsi, Chatti, Bructeri, Chauci and Sicambri), but which he was able to unite due to outrage over Varus’ measures.
On the basis of Roman accounts, the Romans must at this time have been marching northwestward from the area that is now the city of Detmold, passing east of Osnabrück; they must then have camped in this area prior to being attacked.
Varus’s forces included three legions (Legio XVII, Legio XVIII, and Legio XIX), 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, 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, who grew up in Rome as a citizen, where he became a Roman soldier, 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, cooked in pots and their bones used for rituals. However, others were ransomed, and the common soldiers appear to have been enslaved.
The battle had a profound effect on 19th century German nationalism along with the histories of Tacitus; the Germans, at that time still divided into many German states, identified with the Germanic tribes as shared ancestors of one “German people”.
Excavations have revealed battle debris along a corridor almost 15 miles from east to west and little more than a mile wide. A long zig-zagging wall constructed of peat turves and packed sand apparently had been constructed beforehand: concentrations of battle debris before it, and a dearth of finds behind it, testify to the Romans’ inability to breach the Germans’ strong defense.
Human remains found here appear to corroborate Tacitus’ account of their later burial. Coins minted with the countermark VAR, distributed by Varus, also support the identification of the site. As a result, Kalkriese is now perceived to be the actual site of part of the battle, probably its conclusive phase.