"Quintili Vare, legiones redde!“ - The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE

9 September 9 CE, or around this day, 2,005 years ago, three legions under the Roman governor of Germania, Quinctilius Varus, were annihilated by Germanic tribesmen led by the Cherusci chieftain Arminius in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, probably near present-day Osnabrück in Westphalia.

"Quintili Vare, legiones redde!“ ('Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!' – Emperor Augustus after learning of Varus’ defeat, according to Suetonius)

The Roman ceremonial face mask found at the site of the supposed battlefield at Kalkriese in Westphalia

Lobbying for the appointment of his in-law Publius Quinctilius Varus, husband of Augustus’ grandniece Agrippina, as legatus Augusti pro praetore in Germania, more or less the military governor, was probably not the brightest idea the future emperor Tiberius ever had. And while the career politician came with the recommendation of having successfully suppressed a revolt in Roman Palestine with utmost severity, the region between the rivers Rhine and Elbe was hardly a province at the beginning of the common era. However, Varus acted as if the place was a beneficiary of the Pax Romana since centuries and the local tribes, the Cherusci, Marsi, Chatti, Bructeri, Chauci, Sicambri or what you will, did not take too kindly to the new style of colonial rule. Insurrections and punitive expeditions into the heart of darkness of the Germanic forests were a daily fare and, who knows, maybe Varus’ policy of pacifying the new Roman territory might have even been successful in the long run, were it not for Arminius, son of a local chieftain, educated as a Roman officer after being a hostage to guarantee his father’s good behaviour and now a captain of Roman auxiliary cavalry, Varus’ trusted dinner companion and a very gifted and ambitious man.

Tombstones of Roman auxiliary cavalry from Moguntiacum (Mainz) and Vormatia (Worms) on the River Rhine

Arminius was by no means the undisputed leader of the northern Germanic tribes and when the rebellion broke out that he had organised behind Varus’ back, the Roman governor had received a dire warning from Arminius’ father-in-law, one voice among the locals that had arranged themselves with Roman rule quite well. However, Arminius, still a trusted advisor, managed to lure Varus and his three fighting legions, 20,000 men including their auxiliaries, about 1/8 of Rome’s total fighting force, away from the Rhine into northern Germania with false news of a smaller, local uprising. Then, in the late Summer of 9 CE, he even managed to detour the whole army from marching straight to their winter quarters on the great river into the rather unfavourable terrain of a Westphalian wilderness, full of dense forests, swamps and hills. And there, the Germanic tribesmen along with their fellows from the Roman auxiliary cavalry who had conveniently changed sides, came at the ragged Roman marching column, scattered over several miles in rough country and the cutting up began that would last for three days. Varus and his general staff committed suicide, Roman-style, by falling into their swords, while Legiones XVII, XVIII and XIX were slaughtered almost to the last man.

An accordingly heroised imagination of Arminius and the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest by the German Nationalistic painter Hermann Knackfuß around 1890.

Six years later, the new Emperor Tiberius’ nephew Germanicus discovered some of the remains of the Roman soldiers in a sacred grove during his retaliation campaign, at least according to Tacitus, who wrote his “Annals” a hundred years after the battle, giving the profound shock Rome suffered after Varus’ spectacular defeat a ghastly epilogue. In hindsight, the clades Variana, the Varian disaster, might well have been the cause why Rome abandoned the region between the rivers Rhine and Elbe during the following decades, simply because there was nothing that valuable there that would justify the required immense military effort and the cities along the Rhine were far more easy to supply from the south anyway. However, Rome’s withdrawal from the forests of Germania caused a long-term division of Europe between formerly Romanised and non-Romanised territories that is felt to this day and if only for the different European languages. The battle itself was forgotten after the Fall of Western Rome but the memory of Arminius’ heroic resistance was resurrected during the Northern Renaissance and the days of the Reformation onwards, as a symbol of German opposition against everything that was perceived as latter day Roman corruption, from the Catholic Church to the ideas of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, as advocated by the Romanised French.