Did Any Romans Survive The Battle of Teutoburg Forest?
In AD 9, the Roman Empire was shaken to its core when 3 legions– 1/10th of the Imperial Army–was wiped out by Germanic warriors led by Arminius in the Teutoburg Forest.
Led by Quintilius Varus, a political figure rather than an experienced military mind, the Roman Empire suffered their “Custer At Bighorn” moment, a moment so troubling that many citizens questioned the survival of the Empire!
Does the Varian disaster show what can happen when a politician leads an army?
Throughout history there have been numerous examples of politicians successfully leading armies. An obvious example is Julius Caesar. Before leading the army, Caesar worked as a prosecuting attorney for the empire.
Leading to the Varian disaster, Varus only dealt with the frontier in the Middle East and lacked experience fighting the more warlike Germanic tribes.
But, Varus was an experienced military mind!
Roman Empire expert and author of numerous books (including Germanicus, below) on the empire Lindsay Powell disagrees with the criticism of Varus.
Powell tells Rebellion Research, “Firstly, Quinctilius Varus was an experienced commander having seen action in the Alpine War (15 BC) and Judaea (4 BC). As ‘legatus Augusti pro praetore’ his was a military posting. Augustus appointed Varus. With ‘imperium’. And Varus was required to wear a commander’s panoply while on duty. Secondly, to become a magistrate in the Roman ‘res publica’ meant competing one’s way up the ‘cursus honorum’, which mixed civil and military positions. Having that experience, the enduring and almost unanswerable question remains. Why was he apparently so easily duped? See the profile on pp. 264-5 in my Augustus at War.”
Furthermore, since the Germanic tribes constantly fought each other, they had significant military experience, vs lesser experienced Romans. Moreover, the tribesmen had motivation to fight the Romans when Arminius unified and guided them.
The size of the Germanic forces is unclear, but they might have heavily outnumbered the Romans, as the previously hostile tribes came unified under Arminius.
Arminius had served in the Roman army and knew its weaknesses. His ambush was a military masterpiece.
Firstly, Varus was lured deep into what he thought was a friendly country. And Varus had to deal with a non-existent revolt far away.
When he arrived at the distant point and found no rebellion, Varus naturally decided to head home.
While returning, Varus–being a civilian official rather than an experienced general– made numerous mistakes. Including not having scouts on his flanks. As a result, the Roman Army was laden with luggage. And the soldiers marched in a stretched out line that went on for several miles long, winding through a forest path.
When the Germans ambushed in a densely wooded forest, the Roman army had no chance of countering the attack. In addition to Varus’ mistakes, the thick trees put the Roman battle strategies at a disadvantage.
While the Romans could have formed up and fought effectively in an open plain, Arminius’ perfect timing put them in a precarious position. Presumably, some parts of the column did not even know about the attack for a while!
At this point, with Germans enjoying every tactical advantage imaginable, the size of forces would not have mattered. It was almost inevitable that the entire legion would be massacred.
Apparently Roman soldiers lost their last hope of survival after hearing of the probable suicide of Varus:
When news of this had spread, none of the rest, even if he had any strength left, defended himself any longer. Some imitated their leader, and others, casting aside their arms, allowed anybody who pleased to slay them; for to flee was impossible, however much one might desire to do so. Every man, therefore, and every horse was cut down without fear of resistance.Cassius Dio, Roman History 56.22.1
In conclusion, Roman historian Suetonius wrote that Emperor Augustus was beside himself by the news. “The Emperor was inconsolable and repeatedly banged his head against his palace walls shouting, “Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions…”’.