The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD was one of the darkest episodes in Roman military history. Inflicted upon an Empire at its pinnacle, at a time when contemporary writers were boasting of an imperium sine fine, the defeat at Teutoburg resulted in the complete and sudden annihilation of the XVII, XVIII and XIX legions, some sixteen to twenty thousand men – Rome’s worst military defeat since Crassus fell at Carrhae in 53 BC.

Led by the general Publius Quinctilius Varus, whose incompetence was unfairly exaggerated in the aftermath of the battle an effort to provide a scapegoat, the Roman army had been marching in line deep though the heart of the German forest when it was ambushed on all sides by a confederation of Germanic tribes. For hours the Romans managed to keep their assailants at bay, no mean feat considering their line was stretched to between 15 and 20 kilometres and they were fighting in dense forest and heavy rain, and as darkness fell on the forest Varus’ men hastily erected a fortified camp, which they held through the night.

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest

The Roman ceremonial face mask found at Kalkriese by Pieter Kuiper is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Sallying forth from the camp the next morning into the open country around the Wiehen Hills, the Roman army suffered heavy losses. They fought throughout the day, continuing their desperate march west, and struggled into the night, with torrential rain hampering the Romans’ already hopeless attempts at fending off the German tribesmen. But Arminius, the German general behind the attack, was himself a Roman citizen – an auxiliary officer of Germanic origin trained in the arts of Roman warfare. He had laid his trap, and the Romans were marching straight into it.

That night, Arminius ambushed Rome’s straggling soldiers, drawing them into a decisive battle at the foot of the Kalkriese Hill. It was a massacre. Funnelled into a narrow strip between forest and swampland, the legionaries were attacked from all sides, their German aggressors taking cover behind temporary earthworks. Varus and his commanding officers fell on their swords or were cut down as they fled. Any survivors were either killed, enslaved or ransomed (though, curiously, anyone ransomed lost their right to return to Italy).

Suetonius tells us that the ghost of Teutoburg would haunt Augustus for the rest of his life. In the immediate months following the disaster, the emperor, his hair matted and beard unkempt, would dash his head against the palace walls crying, “Quintili Vare, legiones redde!” – Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions! Outside the imperial palace the battle had broader ramifications – ushering in a prolonged period of public mourning, and seeing Rome’s rampant imperial expansionism give way to a more cautious policy of consolidation.

Is there anything to see on the battlefield now ?

Until the late 1980s, our only evidence for where the Battle of Teutoburg Forest took place came from a line in Tacitus where he mentioned the saltus Teutoburgiensis between the Lippe and Ems rivers. Then in 1987, Tony Clunn, an amateur archaeologist armed with nothing but a metal detector, discovered a scattered trail of coins, none of which post-dated the Age of Augustus, and some leaden Roman sling bolts in the Kalkriese-Niewedder Senke near Osnabrück

Visitors to Kalkriese should visit the Varusschlacht Museum und Park Kalkriese. It comprises a vast outdoor section, which recreates part of the battlefield and its earthworks, and a watchtower, which gives an overview of the battlefield more broadly. Also part of the museum is a collection of artefacts recovered from the 24-kilometre corridor archaeologists have so far managed to excavate. Among its exhibits are spearheads, the remains of studded legionary sandals, and even a Roman ceremonial facemask, believed to have belonged to an officer.

Another attraction, at Detmold, some 100 kilometres southeast from the site of the battle, is the Hermannsdenkmal or “statue of Hermann”, completed in 1875. Hermann was the post-reformation name for Arminius, the Cheruscan war chief and victor against the Romans, possibly coined by Martin Luther, and widely endorsed in German nationalistic propaganda to become “Hermann the German.”

J. R. Abdale, Four Days in September: The Battle of Teutoburg (Bloomington, 2013)

P. S. Wells, The Battle That Stopped Rome: Emperor Augustus, Arminius, and the Slaughter of the Legions in the Teutoburg Forest (New York and London, 2003)

Featured photo: Steinbrüche bei Kalkriese by Curt Mühe is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

This article was written for Time Travel Rome by Alexander Meddings