Context and Background

12 B.C. Augustus, with Gaul now firmly in hand1, has dispatched his adopted son Drusus (father of the Emperor Claudius) to conquer and pacify Germania barbara (trans-Rhenic Germany). The campaign, despite determined resistance from the Germans, is a success; the Empire, by the conclusion of the campaign, has added to Germania Romana2 the untamed but wealthy lands east of the Rhine3.

. . .fast-forward to 9 A.D.

Varus and his mistakes

Germania Superior is now a nominal province of the Roman Empire, administered by the ex-consul Publius Quinctilius Varus. The picture that we have of this man is of a soft and greedy lifer, able perhaps to govern a peaceful and settled province, but not at all suited to the task of ruling the warlike4 and not-yet-fully-subjugated Germanii:

"How far he was from despising money, Syria, of which he had been governor, afforded proof; for, going a poor man into that rich province, he became a rich man, and left it a poor province. Being appointed commander of the army in Germany, he imagined that the inhabitants had nothing human but the voice and limbs, and that men who could not be tamed by the sword, might be civilized by law. With this notion, having marched into the heart of Germany, as if among people who delighted in the sweets of peace, he spent the summer in deciding controversies, and ordering the pleadings before a tribunal. . . . [H]e fancied himself a city praetor dispensing justice in the forum, instead of the commander of an army in the middle of Germany."5

Germany, though Roman rule did not extend far beyond the bases of the legions, was (according to Dio Cassius, 56.18) gradually becoming civilized, thanks in part to the benefits of Roman rule: public order, infrastructural and economic development, and the settling of disputes by lawyers and judges instead of by blood feud. Had this gradual process continued, the Germans might have become Roman subjects in good standing, as with the Gauls who had so fiercely resisted Caesar. The question, thanks to Varus' fecklessness, is academic: The exigencies of the time called for a man of equal skill in military and civil matters, but Varus was only barely competent as a civil administrator, and his military experience was nil. He treated the Germans like conquered Roman subjects, a status they were not ready to accept. Too, he treated the Germans with the trust due loyal subjects, forgetting that the memory of liberty was still fresh in their minds.

Conspiracy. . .

Varus, through his folly, had created a climate ready for rebellion; the Germans were prepared to rise against their conquerors, lacking only a leader. Such a man was the Cheruscian Arminius (or Hermann), son of the chief Segimerus (or Segimer). Though Arminius had served Rome—gaining first citizenship, then the rank of knight—his loyalties lay with his countrymen (or perhaps he was ambitious and saw rebellion as his path to power; we do not know). He, as a Roman citizen familiar with the customs and language of Germany, held a privileged place in Varus' administration—a place which he would use to its fullest against his benefactor.

Arminius kept up the facade of a loyal retainer until the last; even as he served in the Roman government, he plotted with those Germans not yet under Roman rule to expel the invaders. In 9 A.D., he adjudged the time ready: the Roman forces were widely dispersed across the country, scattered across towns and military outposts instead of concentrated at their center of power.

. . .and rebellion

Arminius began by inciting an uprising far from the Roman base; Varus, naturally, set out to suppress it, taking the 18th, 19th, and 20th Legions & three squadrons of auxiliary cavalry. Arminius and Segimerus accompanied the Roman column for a while, soon excusing themselves to "fetch reinforcements". At the same time, the outlying German communities attacked those detachments of legionaries which Varus had dispersed across the countryside. Finally, Arminius and Segimerus ambushed the Roman main body in the Teutoburg Forest.

The Teutoburg Forest6 was dense, mountainous, and roadless; the Roman soldiers were forced to bushwhack through unfavorable terrain, dragging their heavy supply trains and camp followers (Varus, suspecting nothing, had even allowed women and children to accompany the fighting men). To increase their difficulties, a heavy rain broke out, slowing and scattering the legions' march. It was at this time that Arminius revealed his treachery, falling on the Romans with his gathered armies.

The battle was a disaster: the Roman troops, scattered and strung out, were surrounded by Germans fighting on their native terrain, who attacked out of the woods, wreaking havoc on the disordered legions then fading back into cover before any organized counterattack was possible. The heavier weapons of the Romans gave no advantage; their bows, soaked with rain, could not counter the light spears of the Germans7, and their shields, also ruined by the wet, were no help. Every last legionary was slaughtered or captured (some were later ransomed, but banned from Italy); Varus and his staff took their own lives.


Arminius and his men did not press past the Rhine; perhaps they were satisfied with expelling the Romans, perhaps the reports of Tiberius' approach gave them pause. Augustus, however, was aghastΩ: he feared that the enemy might advance on a now-defenseless Italy. Accordingly, he expelled all the Gauls and Germans residing in Rome (even those in the barracks of the Praetorian Guard) and took measures to defend the peninsula. When none of the populace answered his call for volunteers, he then took citizenship from 20% of the military-age men; when some still refused to fight, he decimated the resistors. By these measures, and by conscripting freedmen and reenlisting retired soldiers, he scraped together a force which he sent to aid Tiberius in the successful defense of the Rhine.

Final Word

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest ranks with Cannae and Adrianople among the great defeats of Roman military history. Its effects were greater than the loss of Germany and three legions (which were never reconstituted); it marked the end of Roman expansionism in Europe. Despite Tiberius' attempts to reconquer Germany, and despite Trajan's later conquest of Dacia (last conquered, first to fall), the borders of the Empire only shrank from this point on.



1 Kept in check, so it is said, by two cohorts stationed at Lyons (Mommsen, p. 63); but the passage continues with a reminder that the legions on the Rhine, ostensibly there to keep the Germans out, could not fail to exert a pacifying influence on the recently conquered Gauls.

2 Brief digression on the word "Germany": Germania Romana, adjoining Roman Gaul, included modern Germany west of the Rhine, parts of Switzerland and France, and most of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Germania barbara began at the Rhine and, by the conclusion of Augustus' campaign, had been pushed (in theory) as far east as the Elbe—a logical stopping point, since the Empire's border defences depended largely on natural obstacles. See Detwiler, p. 6.

3 Drusus died in the field during the campaign, and his adoptive brother Tiberius took over the job of pacifying and administering the new province. Dio Cassius (Roman History, 55.1) gives an account of this time: Drusus' advance to the Elbe, the inauspicious auguries—temples in Rome were struck by lightning, wolves prowled through the legion's camp, the lamentations of women were heard all around, and a giant warned Drusus, after a failed attempt to cross the river, that "the end of [his] labours and [his] life [were] already at hand"—which attended the campaign, and Drusus' death from an unknown disease.

4Tacitus (Germania 13) reports that the among the Germans, every free man went about armed (a sign of manhood which corresponded with the Romans' toga virilis), and all business was conducted with weapons near at hand.

5 Gaius Velleus Paterculus. Roman History. Translated by John Selby Watson. (New York: 1881) extracted from (yes, it's misspelled)

6 The Teutoburg Forest, though its location has long been disputed, is now agreed to be near Osnabrück in Saxony. See

ΩSuetonius (The Twelve Caesars, 2.23) recounts Augustus' reaction: "[H]e left his hair and beard untrimmed for months; he would often beat his head on a door, shouting: 'Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!' and always kept the anniversary as a day of deep mourning." Thanks to The Debutante for reminding me.

7 Tacitus (Germania, 6) describes a fighting body of lightly-armed and armored men; cavalry and infantry alike fought with frameae—short, narrow-headed spears equally suited to close and ranged combat, something like the Zulu assegai; Robert Graves, in his fictional biography of Claudius, translated the word thus—and carried a shield. None wore armor. (See also Roman Weapons).



  • Detwiler, Donald, Germany: A Short History (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999)
  • Mommsen, Theodor, The Provinces of the Roman Empire : From Caesar to Diocletian, Volume I (NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1887)
  • Wikipedia


+ anything mentioned in the footnotes.