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Why Did The Romans Lose The Battle Of Teutoburg Forest?

Why Did The Romans Lose The Battle Of Teutoburg Forest?

Roman Empire

“Quintili Vare, legiones redde“ – “Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions“ – the writer Sueton quotes the Roman emperor Augustus

AD 9, the Roman Empire becomes shaken to its core when 3 legions. Or 1/10th of the Imperial Army–was wiped out by Germanic warriors led by Arminius(below) 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! 

The Romans lost the Battle of Teutoburg Forest due to becoming caught off guard by an alliance of Germanic tribes led by a chieftain named Arminius. Furthermore, the Romans were heavily outnumbered and outmaneuvered by the Germans, who used the forest as cover to launch surprise attacks on the Roman legions.

The Romans also made several key strategic mistakes:

Such as splitting their forces and becoming bogged down in the dense forest, which made it difficult for them to coordinate their efforts and respond to the German attacks. Ultimately, the Romans suffered a crushing defeat at Teutoburg Forest, which marked the end of their attempts to conquer and annex Germany.

By 9 CE, the Roman Empire had already been in existence for nearly four centuries and had become one of the most advanced and powerful civilizations in the world. Moreover, Rome had a well-developed system of government, a sophisticated legal system, and a strong military that was capable of conquering and annexing large territories.

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.

Cenotaph of Marcus Caelius, 1st centurion of XVIII, who “fell in the war of Varus” (‘bello Variano’).
Reconstructed inscription: “To Marcus Caelius, son of Titus, of the Lemonian tribe, from Bologna, first centurion of the eighteenth legion. 53+12 years old. He fell in the Varian War. His freedman’s bones may be interred here. Publius Caelius, son of Titus, of the Lemonian tribe, his brother, erected (this monument).”

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.”

The Teutoburg Forest on a foggy and rainy day CC BY-SA 4.0

Battle of the Port of Carthage

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. 

See the source image

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.

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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. 

Arminius says goodbye to his wife ThusneldaJohannes Gehrts (1884)

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! 

Heavy Roman shields proved tough to handle during the ambush.

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
Lithography showing Varus committing suicide during Teutoburg battle

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…”’.

Battle of the Teutoburg Forest – Furor Teutonicus, Paja Jovanović, 1889

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Teutoburg Forest Today.
Why Did The Romans Lose The Battle Of Teutoburg Forest?

Roman Empire