The Battle of Teutoburg Forest

Art work by Kevin Knight

In 1 AD Tiberius and his brother Drusus and Germanicus began a long campaign against the Germanic tribes in Germania in the northern regions of the Upper Danube and east of the Rhine. Their attempts to further the expanse of the Roman Empire met with some success as they were able to defeat several Germanic tribes of which the Cherusci was one of them. In 7 A.D. the region of the Upper Danube and eastern Rhine area was classified as pacified and Varus was charged as Governor of Germania and sent to the region to setup the new province.

When the Cherusci were subdued by the Romans in 1 AD the Cherusci sent their hostages as was customary, who they sent was Prince Irmin when The Battle of Teutoburg Forest Latinized his name was known as Arminius. Irmin / Arminius was the son of the great war chieftain Segimerus, after Roman enslavement of the Cheruscan tribe Irmin went to Rome, where he was trained as a Roman military commander and received Roman citizenship where he attained the rank of Equestrian which equates to being a petty noble.

Tired of Roman rule Irmin devised a plan to rid Germania of its Roman occupiers; due to his Roman appointment of being an aid to Publius Quinctilius Varus, gave Irmin access to the plans of Rome. Shortly after becoming Governor of Gaul Varus was given instructions that resistance in Germania had been quelled and was now ready to become a Roman province. Irmin quickly formed an alliance between the Cherusci, Marsi, Chatti, Bructeri and Chauci giving a combined force of approximately 18,000 warriors. Irmin approached King Marbod of the Marcomanni but Marbod declined to join the alliance. With the alliance forged Irmin dispatched news of a civil revolt to Varus. Irmin’s father-in-law who opposed Irmin’s marriage to his daughter sent a warning to Varus about the ambush Irmin had in place. Varus dismissed the notion he trusted Irmin and did not believe that Irmin or any other Germanic could raise such an ambush force. With a force of Legion XVII, XVIII and XIX and the various support auxiliaries making a combined force of 25,000 soldiers Varus felt confident that even if Irmin had betrayed him that the lightly armed Germanic warriors would be no match to his well armed and equipped and professionally trained army.

Upon reaching the Weser River on September 9, 9 AD; a narrow muddy path was found that led into the forest, at the same time a violent storm blew up while the Roman army was widespread and exposed in the open terrain. Varus ordered a single column and proceeded into the forest where shelter from the storm could be found without sending a scout party first.

The raid on Lindisfarne, a tiny island off the coast of Northumbria in north east England, marks the beginning of series of raids and expansion that would spread from the north of Europe to Byzantium. Over the course of time between 793 and 1066 the world would come to know the term “Viking" and the fear that had become associated with the word would seize a vast majority of the known world.

A view of the Teutoburg Forest photo by Arminia, Wikipedia Commons

The storm is recorded in several Roman sources and is not an embellishment from Germanic sources, at the very instance that Varus and his army arrived at the forest edge the storm seems to have come on suddenly. One can almost read between the lines that Tiwaz was protecting the Germanic peoples and that the storm would assure victory to Irmin.

To understand the seriousness of the situation one has to understand a little bit about Roman military tactics. The most effective way the Roman military worked was very similar to a shield wall, in that the Roman soldiers had long and narrow shields that they could use to build a wall. Each soldier was equipped with a short sword called a Gladius, which would be jabbed out along the edge between the shields. Due to the length of the sword it was extremely effective weapon as the weight and size allowed for easy handling and repetitive stabbing motions with out tiring. The Gladius also allowed the Roman army to create tight formations making their shield formation unbreakable by charges of infantry, cavalry and protected the formation from archers as soldiers in the rear of the formation placed the shields over head and the soldiers on all sides of the formation placed their shields together. This particular formation is known as the box formation, and was perhaps one of the most difficult of all Roman infantry formations to break. Roman formations in a single column did not work as well, often the column would get broken into smaller groups and then the groups would be defeated one by one. The Romans liked the open fields to fight which allowed them to form up in the various formations, in forested and swamp areas the Legions were not able to create the formations effectively.

Not far up the muddy path the forest turned to a mixture of forest and swamp, and it was here the Germanic Alliance sprung the ambush upon the Roman Legions and Varus. The Roman column stretched in length to 12 miles (20 km), now faced a rush of 18,000 Germanic warriors running into it from the side essentially smashing the column into smaller fragments. Due to the terrain the Roman Legions were never able to create any formation in which to adequately defend themselves. The battle lasted for three days with the endless slaughter of Roman legionaries, upon the third day what remained of the Legions retreated to Kalkriese Hill, which is north of modern day Osnabrük, there the final death blow was struck and all three legions were utterly destroyed. The Roman cavalry that broke formation and tried to retreat to were captured by Germanic tribesmen at the Rhine. Roman prisoners were kept in wicker cages, some were burned alive, enslaved and some where ransomed back to Rome. Tacitus wrote that the Germanic Tribes sacrificed Roman officer prisoners to the Gods on altars that could still be seen years after the battle.

Although Simeon of Durham’s account is from second hand knowledge it help give the vivid imagery of Vikings that exists to this very day. The fear that swept over If King Marbod had participated in the Germanic Alliance it is quite possible that all Roman influence {outposts, settlements, etc}could have been removed from Germania, unfortunately King Marbod declined, leaving in reality a partial victory from Roman influence. This would later come back to haunt Germania when Germanicus Julius Caesar the nephew of Emperor Tiberius in 15 14 AD, when Germanicus launched a major campaign against Germania with an army of 70,000 soldiers and a significant naval force.

Legions XVII, XVIII and XIX were created by Augustus in approximately 41 BC and met their destruction on September 9, 9 AD; to this day the symbol and cogomen are unknown. The original purpose of the legion was to deal with the last opponent of the second triumvirate Sextus Pompeius, whom was garrisoned in Sicily and threatened Rome’s grain supplies.

After the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC at the Battle of Actium, the legion was transferred to Gaul until the 1 BC when the Legion XVII was transferred to the Rhine Region of Germania. Not until 5 AD did Publius Quinctilus Varus assume command of the legions; where he led the legions into a trap set by Arminius (Prince Irmin) after he reported a rebellion up rising in the Rhine.

Before its destruction Legion XIX in 30 BC the veterans of Legion XIX settled near Pisa with a base camp near Cologne, and thus until its destruction in 9 AD was associated with the Rhine region. As a result the legion was one of three that were utterly destroyed in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. The Roman Empire never reinstated the numbers XVII, XVIII and XIX as legion numbers again due to the overwhelming losses at Teutoburg Forest, in part it may be due also to the fact that the Eagles of each legion was lost in the battle and was not until ruling eras of Tiberius and Caligula were the eagles recovered from the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. As a result the legion was one of three that were utterly destroyed in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest.

The Roman Empire never reinstated the numbers XVII, XVIII and XIX as legion numbers again due to the overwhelming losses at Teutoburg Forest, in part it may be due also to the fact that the Eagles of each legion was lost in the battle and was not until ruling eras of Tiberius and Caligula were the eagles recovered from the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. Irmin and Varus in battle Emperor Augustus was shaken by the defeat of his war machine in the Teutoburg Forest, Suetonius the biographer of Augustus wrote that the news struck Augustus so hard that it darkened the rest of his days that upon hearing of the defeat Augustus tore off his clothing yelling at the top of his lungs:

“Quintili Vare, legiones redde!” – “Quintilius Varus give me back my legions!”

Augustus had a nervous breakdown with several symptoms of semi-insanity generally depicted by banging his head against the walls of the palace and repeatedly screaming the above line.

Reconstruction of the improvised fortifications prepared by the Germanic tribes for the final phase of the Varus battle near Kalkriese photo by Markus Schweiß, Wikimedia Commons

With Tiberius coming to power after the death of Augustus on August 19, 14 AD, faced a mutiny by the Legions stationed in Pannonia and Germania for they had not been paid bonuses that were promised to them by Augustus, after waiting a short time for Tiberius to respond to the demand of the Legions was not met the Legions mutiny. To respond to this Tiberius sent his son Drusus with Germanicus Julius Caesar to put down the mutiny.

Instead of quelling the mutiny Germanicus led the troops in battle against the Marsi on the upper Ruhr river, resulting in almost total annihilation of the Marsi tribe. Only a few survivors remained after the massacre.

In the next two years Germanicus and his eight legions fought the Germanic Alliance led by Irmin. In May 15 AD Germanicus captured Irmin’s wife Thusnelda with the assistance of her father, she was taken to Rome and paraded as a war trophy on May 26, 17 AD, she would never be returned to Germania, nor is she ever mentioned further in history, in all likeliness she ended up a slave or murdered. Her son was born in captivity and named Thumelicus, he was trained by the Romans as a gladiator and likely was killed in the arena in Ravenna at the age of 15 or 16. In the same year Germanicus eliminated any form of resistance as now most Germanic peoples fled when the Roman legions came in sight. Performing the raids accomplished the goal of Rome by removing rebel resistance to the Roman colonization of Germania by the end of 15 AD.

Thunselda was the daughter of the Cheruscan prince Segestes. Segestes planned on her marriage to someone other then Irmin; whom eloped and married Thunselda against the will of Segestes. This began the feud between Irmin and Segestes, who favored the Romans. Segestes met with Varus to warn Varus of the ambush that awaited in Teutoburg Forest, but Varus ignored him. When Germanicus invaded in 15 AD Segestes openly turned on the Cherusci, handing over his daughter to Germanicus, he was an honoured guest of Rome as his daughter was paraded in Rome as a war trophy.

Germanicus led his legions to the battle site where the Battle of Teutoburg Forest occurred; Germanicus had the remains properly buried and prepared to launch a massive assault on the Cherusci. Irmin attempted to repeat the victory he gained at Teutoburg Forest by ambushing Germanicus’s cavalry, but his attempt only inflicted minor casualties upon the Romans. This followed with contact with the Roman infantry subsequently causing the Germanic line to break and retreat into the forest. With victory at hand and winter quickly approaching Germanicus led his legions back to the Rhine for the winter encampment.

In the next year 16 AD Germanicus again raised another large army and made war on the Germanic peoples, crossing the Weser River near modern day Minden, Germanicus suffered heavy losses, Germanicus pushed forward to met Irmin’s army at Idistoviso located further up the Weser River, near modern day Rinteln, this Battle became known as the Battle of the Weser River.

Before the battle Irmin’s brother Flavus (Germanic name unknown) still served in the Roman army sent word to Irmin that Thunelda was being well treated, adding salt to the injury stating further that Rome was a firm but fair ruler.

The Battle of the Weser River was the last serious attempt to conqueror Germania beyond the Rhine. Even though Germanicus managed to force Irmin and his army to a major engagement and achieve victory over Irmin; Germanicus had to withdrawal back to the Rhine for the winter. Tiberius grew tired of the esculating costs of the campaigns in northern Germania and ordered Germanicus to return to Rome. As a result no further serious attempts were made to conquer Germania beyond the Rhine. Germanicus mysteriously died while conquering the kingdoms of Cappadocia and Commegena in Asia on October 10, 19 AD, upon his death bed Germanicus accused the Syria govonor Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso.

Irmin and Inviomerus his uncle managed to escape the battle with most of the army with the help of Chauci; who are a Germanic tribe near the North Sea. The Chauci were pro-Roman from 1 AD providing Auxiliaries for Germanicus second campaign against the Cherusci. The Greek geographer Ptolemy shows on his map of Ireland (the first known map of Ireland to exist) the Chauci had already colonized the eastern part of Ireland during 1 AD and 2 AD. In 47 AD the Chauci with the Frisii led by Gannascus who was a Legion deserter raided Germania Inferior, using small boats the coast of Gaul was also raided but there they were defeated by Corbulo who plotted the death of Gannascus. When Gannascus was killed the Chauci had a period of great unrest. By the end of the 3rd century AD the Chauci merged with the Saxons, sources are unclear if this was by choice or by force. In Beowulf the Chauci are represented by the Hugas who form an alliance with the Hetwaras (Frankish Chattuarii) and the Frisians to fight against the Geatish raiding party, the Geats are defeated and King Hygelac of the Geats is killed only Beowulf survives.

"Caesar, as soon as he saw the Cheruscan bands which in their impetuous spirit had rushed to the attack, ordered the finest of his cavalry to charge them in flank, Stertinius with the other squadrons to make a detour and fall on their rear, promising himself to come up in good time. Meanwhile there was a most encouraging augury. Eight eagles, seen to fly towards the woods and to enter them, caught the general's eye. "Go," he exclaimed, "follow the Roman birds, the true deities of our legions." At the same moment the infantry charged, and the cavalry which had been sent on in advance dashed on the rear and the flanks. And, strange to relate, two columns of the enemy fled in opposite directions, that, which had occupied the wood, rushing into the open, those who had been drawn up on the plains, into the wood. The Cherusci, who were between them, were dislodged from the hills, while Arminius, conspicuous among them by gesture, voice, and a wound he had received, kept up the fight.

He had thrown himself on our archers and was on the point of breaking through them, when the cohorts of the Raeti, Vendelici, and Gauls faced his attack. By a strong bodily effort, however, and a furious rush of his horse, he made his way through them, having smeared his face with his blood, that he might not be known. Some have said that he was recognised by Chauci serving among the Roman auxiliaries, who let him go."Tacitus: The Annals, Book II

Coin of Germancus returning the lost Legion standards (eagles) photo by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., Wikimedia Commons.

Before heading back to Rome Germanicus performed several small raids into Germania at this point he recovered two of the three lost Legion’s eagles from the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. The third eagle would not be recovered until 42 AD by Publius Gabinius from the Chauci.

"At the close of the year was consecrated an arch near the temple of Saturn to commemorate the recovery of the standards lost with Varus, under the leadership of Germanicus and the auspices of Tiberius; a temple of Fors Fortuna, by the Tiber, in the gardens which Caesar, the dictator, bequeathed to the Roman people; a chapel to the Julian family, and statues at Bovillae to the Divine Augustus.

In the consulship of Caius Caecilius and Lucius Pomponius, Germanicus Caesar, on the 26th day of May, celebrated his triumph over the Cherusci, Chatti, and Angrivarii, and the other tribes which extend as far as the Elbe. There were borne in procession spoils, prisoners, representations of the mountains, the rivers and battles; and the war, seeing that he had been forbidden to finish it, was taken as finished. The admiration of the beholders was heightened by the striking comeliness of the general and the chariot which bore his five children. Still, there was a latent dread when they remembered how unfortunate in the case of Drusus, his father, had been the favour of the crowd; how his uncle Marcellus, regarded by the city populace with passionate enthusiasm, had been snatched from them while yet a youth, and how shortlived and ill-starred were the attachments of the Roman people."Tacitus: The Annals, Book II

"This same year, however, Sulpicius Galba overcame the Chatti, and Publius Gabinius conquered the Cauchia and as a crowning achievement recovered a military eagle, the only one that still remained in the hands of the enemy from Varus' disaster. Thanks to the exploits of these two men Claudius now received the well-merited title of imperator."Cassius Dio: Roman History, Book LX Chapter 8

After the Battle of Teutoburg Forest more and more of the Germanic tribes became openly hostile towards the Romans and their attempts to expand. The most powerful Germanic ruler King Marbod of the Marcomanni in Bohemia remained neutral throughout the conflict and the costal tribes of Germania successfully accepted the idea of Roman rule. Only in what is now west-central Germany and the eastern portion of the Netherlands was Irmin able to form a collation of anti-Roman tribes.

After Germanicus’s recall to Rome, war had broken out between Irmin and King Marbod. There was no victor in the war as it ended in stalemate, Irmin forced Marbod back to Bohemia but Irmin was not able to penetrate Bohemia. While this conflict went on Irmin faced further trouble at home from Segestes and other Pro-Roman Germanic leaders.

Although Irmin outlived his greatest opponent Germanicus, Segestes plotted the murder of Irmin and in 21 AD he succeeded. Segestes was able to convince the Chatti that Irmin was becoming too powerful and thus a danger to them. As a result a Chatti nobleman assassinated Irmin. Tiberius is said to have been approached by the Chatti with an offer to assassinate Irmin but was turned down, there is no proof that they Tiberius did not secretly endorse this action. In 50 AD several bands of the Chatti invaded the Roman territory of Germania Superior, likely in the area around Hesse east of the Rhine, here the Chatti began to plunder. Lucius Pomponius the Roman commander raised a defense force from the Vangiones and Nemetes with support from Roman cavalry. The force attacked the Chatti from both sides resulting in the defeat of the Chatti.

Amongst the Chatti were Roman slaves who had been held captive for 40 years from the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, the captives were joyfully liberated by their fellow Romans.

“Arminius liberator haud dubie Germaniae et qui non primordia populi romani, sicut alii reges ducesque, sed florentissimum imperium lacessieret: proeliis ambiguus, bello non victus.

Arminius, without doubt Germania's liberator, who challenged the Roman people not in its beginnings like other kings and leaders, but in the peak of its empire; in battles with changing success, undefeated in the war.” – Tacitus: The Annals, Book II

During the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th century, Martin Luther took the story of Irmin and rechristened him as Hermann, which would become an emblem of the revival of German nationalism. In 1808 Heinrich von Kleist published but did not perform his play Die Hermannsschlacht, after Napoleon’s victory at Wagram, this led to a huge uprising in anti-Napoleonic German sentiment and pride.

It was not until 1839 that construction began on the massive statue of Irmin which became known as the Hermannsdenkmal, located on a hill near Detmold in the Teutoburg Forest.

There have been some studies to compare Irmin to that of Sigurđ; in particular the study done by the philologist Ernst Bickel and Otto Höfler a specialist in Old Norse Eddas; have studied the epic poems and to their amazement believe that they have proved the true life existence of Sigurđ through Arminius. Published in a book by S. Fischer-Fabian entitled Die ersten Deutschen: Über das rätselhafte Volk der Germanen; the researchers came up with some of the following parallels:

1. Sigurđ was murdered by his wife’s family – so was Arminius as Segestes was directly responsible for the murder of Arminius.

2. Sigurđ killed Fafnir – Arminius killed the Roman infantry column that was stretched out like a serpent.

3. Sigurđ grew up in Xanten on the Lower Rhine – What remained of Varus army fled to the Castra Vetera (Old Camp), which was located in Xanten, and a powerful Roman stronghold.

4. Sigurđ was suckled by a doe and died like a deer pursued by hunters – Arminius was a member of the Cheruskans, whose name is derived from the Germanic word stem herut meaning deer hart. When Latinized “ch” was used to render the Germanic voiceless patatal and velar fricatives thus it sounded like the “ch” sound in the modern German word Chemie or “g” in the Spanish word gente. See also the mead hall named heorot or “Hart’s Hall” in Beowulf.

5. Sigurđ was the son of King Sigemund – Arminius’s father was named Sigimer in Latin Segimer.

6. Sigurđ fought with Fafnir on the Gnitaheiđr – Arminius defeated the Romans on the Gnidderhöi.

These are but a few comparisons that the researchers found, to me they sound very convincing as there are too many coincidences to be accidental. Often poetic and prose forms of lore are never exactly clear using imagery to express or to tell the tale of the event. If Irmin / Arminius is Sigurđ then what was once myth has become real beyond doubt. As all mythology has some basis in factuality.

2009 marks the 2000th anniversary of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, there are celebrations to be held in Germany at the Museum Und Park Kalkriese as well as celebrations in New Ulm, Minnesota at the Monument.

If you are wanting more information on the discovery of the battlesite Major Tony Clunn has released a book on his findings, it is hard to get and a bit expensive but it is the ONLY book on the subject matter dealing with the discovery of the battle site. As discussed in the Völuspá.org blog The Battle that Stopped Rome by Peter Wells, has been reviewed it is an ok source to get some facts on the battle but Wells clearly in favour of the Romans. The last book on the subject matter of the actual battle in Teutoburg Forest is titled Rome's Greatest Defeat by Adrian Murdoch. These three books will give the reader a good foundation on the build up to the battle, the battle, immediate outcome and the lasting affects on history as well as the excavations currently underway.

by Noil


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